What’s Behind the Recent Success of the Dutch BDS Movement?

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This is a guest post by Yochanan Visser of Missing Peace.

In December last year a diplomatic row erupted between Israel and The Netherlands concerning the decision by certain major Dutch companies to join the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement.

These divestment decisions were taken after the companies took advice from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Dutch ambassador was summoned twice by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs over the issue.

First Dutch water company Vitens cancelled a cooperation agreement with Mekorot, Israel’s water utility. The Vitens decision came barely a month after the agreement with Mekorot had been signed and after a Dutch governmental delegation led by Lilianne Ploumen, Dutch Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, canceled a visit to Mekorot.

Vitens said the decision was taken after consultation with the country’s foreign ministry. Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans denied having pressured Vitens to cancel the agreement with the Israelis but declined to answer questions about the aborted Ploumen/Mekorot meeting.

A couple of weeks later, PGGM – the second largest of the Dutch pension funds – announced it will divest from Israeli banks. Ha’aretz reported that PGGM’s decision to withdraw all its investments from Israel’s five largest banks came because they operate branches in the West Bank and are involved in financing construction in the settlements.

An informed source says that over the past few months, the Dutch pension giant contacted Bank Hapoalim, Bank Leumi, Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot, First International Bank of Israel and Israel Discount Bank and informed each of them that in PGGM’s view their settlement-related connections pose a problem from the standpoint of international law.

PGGM told the banks its stand was based on the advisory opinion issued by the International Court of Justice in The Hague in 2004, which held that settlements in occupied Palestinian territory violate Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention and are illegal.

Article 49 provides: “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”

PGGM’s move, it now appears, comes in the wake of relentless pressure by several NGOs that receive funding from the Dutch government.

Peter Borgdorff, director of PFZW, an affiliate of PGGM and the second-largest of the Dutch funds, disclosed in a blog post  that PGGM has for years been criticized and subjected to pressure by Dutch NGOs over its investment in Israeli banks. Most of these NGOs, including Cordaid, Oxfam Novib and ICCO, are funded by the Dutch government.

A key driving force behind the Vitens decision and the lobby for BDS in the Dutch parliament is a well-connected, pro-Palestinian NGO, The Rights Forum (TRF), led by former prime minister Andreas van Agt.

Several other former senior ministers are on its board, including former Dutch Foreign Minister and EU commissioner Hans van den Broek, who is said to have been the driving force behind the EU’s recently announced critical guidelines on Israeli settlements.

In the case of PGGM, The Rights Forum member Cees Flinterman was instrumental in the decision to divest from Israeli banks. Flinterman, who is a professor of international and constitutional law, has a self-declared track record of pro-Palestinian activities. In 2007 he was appointed ethical adviser by PGGM. His task is to advise PGGM about responsible investments.

The Dutch BDS movement has now turned to ABP, the third largest pension fund in the world. One of the actions taken to exert pressure on ABP to divest from Israeli banks is an online petition. But this time Dutch pro-Israel activists decided to take action. They launched their own online petition in order to stop ABP divestment from Israel.

(You can sign the petition here:  http://www.petitions24.com/abp_stop_israel_boycot)

Dutch bank ING is also under pressure to reconsider investments in Israeli companies as reported by the Financial Times.

The NGOs behind the BDS campaign in The Netherlands receive large scale funding by the Dutch government. This is one of the main reasons why the BDS movement has gained incredible momentum in The Netherlands.

Also, the Dutch government’s “Discouragement Policy” (that targets trade with Israeli settlements) has provided activists with the tools and ammunition to form a vigorous BDS network, infiltrating both political and economic channels in the Netherlands.

Another factor influencing the increasing boycott-atmosphere in The Netherlands is the role of the media. Some of the most influential papers have given a podium to op-ed writers and columnists who openly endorse the BDS campaign.

For example the paper Trouw published an op-ed by Harry Hummels, a professor of ethics, in which PGGM was praised for being a ‘trend setter in responsible investment’.

Volkskrant columnist Thomas von der Dunk wrote that the PGGM decision shows that Israel has to choose between ‘European civilization and the criminal colonists’.

He also wrote that ‘Israel has to decide if it wants to be a respectable country or a pariah state comparable to Apartheid South Africa’.


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