Only days before the Netherlands-Israel Cooperation Forum kicks off in Herzliya, the Dutch government is being pushed to publically clarify its policies against cooperation with Israeli businesses in the settlements - or those who are connected to Israeli rule in the West Bank - and to declare that such businesses will not be invited to participate in the Forum seminars.
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The forum is intended to deepen the economic relations between Holland and Israel, with a focus on the fields of agricultural technology, water and energy. Senior government officials from both countries – including the prime ministers, the Dutch foreign minister and other Israeli ministers – are due to attend, evidencing the importance each nation attributes to the forum.
But the Dutch government now finds itself facing a severe conflict of interests. Their Israeli peers - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett - are pushing the economic interests of the settlements, while Holland has promised its public that it will avoid any economic cooperation with West Bank settlement entities.
Last week, Dutch journalists, members of parliament and law professors commented in various ways on the contradiction between the Dutch government's stated policy and its activities with the Cooperation Forum: The website of the Dutch Embassy in Tel Aviv recently included names of factories located in the settlements or who operate in the West Bank in a list of parties interested in meeting with Dutch businessmen who are coming to the forum as part of the official delegation.
In addition, the Dutch did not plan on including a “Territorial Clause,” which would stipulate that the forum only covers sovereign Israel, in a joint statement that is being formulated for the event.
The wording of the agreement defining the forum's activity has not yet been finalized, and the outcome is expected to be an important test of the applicability of the European Union's settlement guidelines and of the political will behind the Dutch government’s declarations.
Last Tuesday, the Dutch parliament voted on a motion demanding Holland explicitly exclude the "settlement economy" from its economic cooperation agreement with Israel. The motion, proposed by the opposition Socialist Party, was defeated in parliament by a vote of 77 to 73, but despite its failure, the debate and pressure on the government have not calmed down.
Thirteen professors of international law sent a letter to Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans, criticizing his statements from last week in a debate in Parliament. Timmermans, of the Labor Party, stated that since the forum does not have legal status, there is no reason to include a territorial clause.
The professors wrote in response: “It was the Dutch government that initiated the intensification of the bilateral relations with Israel, which resulted in the creation of the Netherlands-Israel Cooperation Forum. The government formalizes, supports, and is a co-organizer of this forum, and it therefore bears responsibility for the forum as a whole.”
The writers stated in their letter that if the Dutch government fails to include an explicit reference to the Dutch position on the matter, the nation's ability to prevent any economic interaction with the settlements - which are, according to the professors, in violation of international law- will be weakened.
The Netherlands stands at the forefront of international law and must preserve its reputation as such, they wrote, reminding readers that the International Court of Justice is located within the country's borders.
After the resolution was rejected, members of four left-wing opposition parties presented Timmermans with official questions in parliament. He answered them on Wednesday in writing. Technically, Timmermans wrote, it was not possible to filter out the names of companies from settlements who signed up to participate, but “the Dutch government hasn’t invited any companies from settlements to any component of the Forum. This also applies to the workshops.
“If a Dutch company registers for a meeting with an Israeli company in view of activities in or in the interest of settlements, then contact will be established with this Dutch firm and attention will be drawn to the Dutch discouragement policy," wrote Timmermans.
“If a Dutch company still wants to proceed with the meeting, the message will be that the Dutch government cannot offer services to this company," he continued, "The organization in the context of the forum of a match-making event is a service. Therefore, such a company will not be present at the forum or a networking reception."
“The Dutch Embassy in Tel Aviv has informed the Israeli government that the discouragement policy is applicable to the cooperation forum. Israel has taken note of that,” wrote Timmermans.
The Dutch foreign minister reported that the Palestinian Authority requested to limit the forum’s activities to the June 4, 1967 borders. The Netherlands had made it clear, Timmermans said, that the Dutch policy was still in force: that all the territories occupied by Israel after 1967 are not being considered part of Israeli territory.
The Dutch newspaper NRC on Monday reported that the Dutch Minister for Foreign Trade, Lilianne Ploumen, who will be joining Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Timmerman, plans to pay a visit to Mekorot, the national water company, which is to participate in the forum events. The report mentioned the fact that Mekorot has conducted drilling operations in the West Bank (an Illegal action according to international law).
Timmermans, in his written response to parliamentary queries said offered a simple 'no' when asked if such a visit was to take place. Responding to Haaretz's query on the subject, Mekorot said that 'no visit was scheduled.' Journalists in the Netherlands received information that Dutch businessmen would be visiting Mekorot on Monday, but the water company stated no such visits were planned.
The Israeli Economy ministry stated that "We do not know of any Israeli company located beyond the Green Line that has shown interest in participating in the event. We were not called to address the matter." On Tuesday, Haaretz reported that at least two Israeli companies located in the West Bank had signed up to participate.