BDS in The Netherlands: A case study of failed Israeli public diplomacy

A diplomatic row has 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.

What is now clear is that the lobbying efforts of pro-Palestinian NGO’s and confusing political signals by the Foreign Ministry of The Netherlands were highly influential. It has also has become evident that the intensifying BDS campaign is connected to the abject failure of Israel’s public diplomacy activities in The Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe.

PGGM divests

A week ago, PGGM – the largest of the Dutch pension fund giants – 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 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 NGO’s 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 posting that PGGM has for years been criticized and subjected to pressure by Dutch NGO’s over its investment in Israeli banks. Most of these NGO’s, including Cordaid, Oxfam Novib and ICCO, are funded by the Dutch government.

NGO Monitor reports that at least 9 Dutch NGO’s endorsed the 2005 “Palestinian Civil Society Call for BDS.” This discriminatory, anti-peace initiative calls for “the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era” wrote NGO Monitor in a report about Dutch support for BDS campaigns.

Meanwhile ABP, the Dutch pension fund for employees in the government, public and education sectors. has said it will not follow PGGM and will continue to invest in Israeli banks.


In December 2013, Dutch water company Vitens cancelled a cooperation agreement with Mekorot, Israel’s water utility. This marked the second time in a month that a Dutch company had joined the BDS campaign against Israel. 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.

The Rights Forum

Meanwhile, it has emerged that 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.

Following the Vitens move to terminate cooperation with Mekorot, TRF issued a statement lauding the decision. The TRF website publishes extensively on water issues in the West Bank and Gaza. It ascribes to Israel the entire blame for Palestinian water supply problems. TRF even blames Israel for polluting the Gaza aquifer and for the absence of waste water treatment capability in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

A week ago, Dutch NGO Missing Peace published a report contradicting TRF’s claims, basing itself on two scientific studies. The first is a dissertation by the Swiss scientist Lauro Burkhart that provides convincing evidence of the Palestinian Authority’s strategy of turning water into a political weapon, and misleading the international community about the underlying causes of Palestinian water supply and management problems.

FM Timmermans

It remains unclear what the role of Dutch FM Timmermans is in the escalating BDS campaign in The Netherlands against Israel. Formally, Timmermans denies all involvement in the campaign. He says he objects to sanctions and boycotts against Israel. But the Israeli government and Several Dutch MP’s, along with parts of the government of Israel, think this is not the entire truth.

Last week, the Dutch ambassador was again summoned by the Israeli Foreign Ministry over the pro-boycott activities in The Netherlands. Israel’s Deputy Director General for European Affairs, Raphael Schutz, told the ambassador that the PGGM pension fund decision to divest from Israel is unacceptable and relies on false premises.

Israel, he emphasized, “expects the Government of the Netherlands, in the spirit of the friendship between the two countries, to take an unequivocal stance against such steps, which only serve to damage the relations between Israel and the Netherlands”.

Something similar happened in December 2013 when Israel first summoned Ambassador Veldkamp and protested against “ambiguous statements by the Dutch Foreign Ministry that created a pro-boycot atmosphere in The Netherlands”.

Van der Staay

Dutch MP Kees van der Staay and the Dutch Christian Democratic party (CDA) have called for a parliamentary debate about the Vitens decision and the confusion over Timmermans role in the Mekorot boycott. The debate is now scheduled to take place on January 16.

During a general assembly meeting of the Dutch parliament on January 13, Timmermans again failed to respond to a question by MP Voordewind (CU) seeking clarification over the cancellation of Ploumen’s visit to Mekorot.

Whatever the final analysis, it is absolutely clear that Timmermans holds a very different view on Israel’s presence in the West Bank compared with his predecessor, Uri Rosenthal. Rosenthal vehemently opposed boycotts against Israel and has said that they do not contribute to peace.

Timmermans’ policy is to actively discourage Dutch companies from doing business with Israeli enterprises that are active beyond the so-called Green Line. He does not view the West Bank as a part of Israel and has defended the double standard in the EU’s treatment of Israel.

Christians for Israel

The Dutch NGO Christians for Israel (CVI) has begun taking action against the boycott of Israeli companies in The Netherlands. On Tuesday, CVI activists held a protest demonstration outside PGGM headquarters in Zeist. The NGO vowed to continue its protests until PGGM revises its decision to divest from Israeli banks.

Such measures will not stop the increasingly pro- boycott atmosphere developing in The Netherlands. So long as well-funded pro-Palestinian NGO’s can dominate the accepted narrative about the ongoing Palestinian Israeli conflict, the situation will continue to deteriorate.

Israel must realize that it should change its attitude in the field of public diplomacy and start to provide pro-Israeli NGO’s with the means to combat Palestinian propaganda and to influence the lobby effort on behalf of the Jewish state.

In this respect, the current developments in The Netherlands are a case study illustrating the degree of influence wielded by NGO’s with the means and the determination to change government policy and public opinion, and the damaging consequences of such campaigns.

About the Author
Yochanan Visser is a freelance journalist and director of Missing Peace Information, an independent news agency. He wrote a book about the cognitive war against Israel in the Dutch language. In December 2014 he became the Middle East Correspondent of Western Arizona USA