The Netherlands’ largest supplier of drinking water said Tuesday it was severing ties with Israeli national water company Mekorot because of the “political context” of Israel’s West Bank settlements.
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Only a month ago Vitens, the Dutch firm, signed a memorandum of understanding to cooperate on projects with Mekorot. But preparations for this week’s launch of the Dutch-Israeli Cooperation Forum, intended to to strengthen bilateral relations, heightened criticism in Holland over business ties with companies linked to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, especially Mekorot.
Following a parliamentary debate, the Dutch minister for foreign trade and development cooperation, Lilianne Ploumen, canceled a visit this week to Mekorot, Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad reported. She was here for a three-day visit with senior business figures and cabinet members including Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
In the Dutch media and the parliamentary debate, Mekorot was mentioned as a company that drills for water in the West Bank. It was also accused of discriminating against Palestinians in supplying water.
'Projects cannot be separated from political context'
Regarding the cooperation with Mekorot, Vitens said in a statement it “attaches great importance to integrity and abides by national and international law and regulations.” Vitens’ decision was taken following consultations with the Dutch Foreign Ministry.
According to Vitens, “Following consultations with the parties involved, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the company concluded that it would be very difficult jointly to develop possible future projects, considering that these projects cannot be seen separately from the political context.”
The company, owned by local and regional governments, has 5.4 million customers in five of the country’s provinces. It has 1,700 employees and 47,000 kilometers of pipelines supplying 350 million cubic meters of water a year. Its annual revenues are around 450 million euros.
This is the second time in recent months that Dutch firms have canceled a project with Israeli companies due to the latter’s operations in the West Bank.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said it was “very strange” that Vitens was boycotting an Israeli counterpart chosen by the World Bank for a regional cooperation project. Palmor was referring to the Dead Sea water-sharing project involving Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Palmor said Vitens had adopted “an absurd position, putting to shame the boycott and its supporters.” Still, the Foreign Ministry is wary of the mood in the Netherlands concerning Israel. Officials in Jerusalem say boycotts and anti-Israeli steps stem in part from the Dutch government’s caving to pressure from anti-Israel groups.
The festive atmosphere over the launch of the Dutch-Israeli Cooperation Forum was dampened when the Dutch Embassy’s website published the names of Israeli companies taking part in the forum - despite their presence in West Bank settlements or operations linked to the settlements or Israel’s administration in the West Bank.
Amid the Dutch criticism and parliamentary debate, the Dutch government made clear that no company linked to the settlements had been invited to the forum’s working groups. The government added that Dutch firms that insisted on forging ties with Israeli companies with links to the settlements would not receive the forum's services.
Cooperation with Israelis and Palestinians
Vitens’ retraction of its cooperation plans with Mekorot were highlighted in Prime MInister Rutte’s interview Saturday with Dutch news station NOS. Rutte said the policy of dissuading Dutch firms from cooperating with the settlements could not be reconciled with the services that cater to both Israelis and Palestinians. If there was a total severing of relations between the Netherlands and Mekorot, "I couldn’t have a shower in Israel,” he quipped.
The initiative to strengthen economic ties between Israel and the Netherlands was undertaken by Rutte’s previous government, which fell last year. The new team, which includes the Labor Party and Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, changed course and established two forums for cooperation, one with Israel and one with the Palestinian Authority. The two entities launched separately at the beginning of this week.
The Dutch contributed two large scanning machines for use at the Kerem Shalom crossing with the Gaza Strip and the Allenby crossing with Jordan. The equipment was provided to expedite Israeli border inspections of Palestinian goods and thus help improve the political situation.
The Dutch expected the equipment at Kerem Shalom to enable intra-Palestinian exports from Gaza to the West Bank. But Israel barred Gaza producers from marketing their goods outside the Strip, even in the West Bank. Rutte thus canceled a ceremony planned for the Kerem Shalom crossing.