For the last few weeks, I have followed a heated discussion in The Netherlands, concerning Dutch financial divestment from Israeli companies under the pretence of compliance with international law and corporate social responsibility. However it is the consistency, in which the State of Israel is singled out time and again by Dutch businesses, that has sparked a national debate.

People in The Netherlands who support Israel have doubts about the ethical integrity of those businesses. Also, there is confusion about the role of the Dutch government, since it clearly does not have priority interests in battling the occupation of the Western Sahara by Morocco. The government does not take political action against the occupation of Tibet by China, nor does it prioritize the occupation of Northern Cyprus by Turkey, just to name a few. Then why is the government discouraging companies to do business with Israel?


Three major businesses, namely Royal HaskoningDHV, Vitens and PGGM, have recently ended their relations with Israeli companies who are [actively] present in the Territories [including East-Jerusalem]. In all three cases, the Dutch government was on a certain level involved in the decision making process of the businesses; through state funded NGO's that lobbied to terminate further cooperation with Israeli companies, or through direct advice from the Dutch government itself.

The exclusion of five Israeli banks from the investment portfolio of pension fund PGGM instigated a national debate in The Netherlands between concerned citizens from all sides of the political spectrum. A repeatedly used argument in the discussion was that PGGM and the Dutch government judge Israel by a different standard than they do for other countries in the Middle East [and beyond], since they primarily target Israel with a selective approach.


PGGM decided to withdraw its investments from Bank Hapoalim, Bank Leumi, First International Bank of Israel, Israel Discount Bank and Mizrahi Tefahot Bank in January of this year, since those banks provide their services to Israeli customers beyond the Green Line, in the Westbank settlements. As the International Court of Justice concluded that the settlements are in breach of International Law, PGGM has decided to cease further cooperation.

After the released press statement and the resulting storm of criticism in the Dutch media, PGGM director Peter Borgdorff wrote on his personal blog that for years now PGGM was approached by NGO's such as Cordaid, ICCO, IKV PaxChristi, Oxfam-Novib and others to stop cooperating with the Israeli banks in question. Borgdorff furthermore explained that PGGM administrates the pensions for some of these NGO's as well. Thus, a conflict of interests certainly influenced the decision making process, yet the true hypocrisy lies in the fact that PGGM does continue to invest in companies such as the Bank of China and the China Construction Bank Corporation, whilst those banks provide their services in occupied Tibet.


Dutch water supply company Vitens terminated its cooperation with the Israeli national water company Mekorot in December 2013, due to reasons of 'integrity' and '[inter]national law'. Soon after the press statement of Vitens, questions arose in the Dutch parliament about which role the government had played in this decision. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs explained that Vitens had approached them for a consult about Mekorot. Through a telephone conversation initiated by Vitens on 9 December, the Ministry had told Vitens that they did not mind the cooperation, as long as it would not benefit the settlements.

This conversation was indeed initiated by Vitens and not by the government itself; however contradiction lies in the fact that Vitens asked for advice after Dutch Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, Lilianne Ploumen, cancelled her meeting with Mekorot earlier that month, during a Dutch trade mission to the Palestinian Territories and Israel. Her cancellation attracted media attention, and henceforth led several political parties to ask questions on why Vitens [still] cooperated with Mekorot when Minister Ploumen had sent such a clear signal by canceling her meeting.

Meanwhile, since Vitens decided to end its relations with Mekorot, it still continues to work with the Hamas government in Gaza, namely through the Coastal Municipalities Water Utility [CMWU] organization. Moreover, despite the fact that the European Union [EU] has labeled Hamas as a terrorist group, the EU itself remains a partner of CMWU as well.

Royal HaskoningDHV

In September 2013, engineering firm Royal Haskoning ended its involvement in the Kidron wastewater treatment plant project with the Jerusalem municipality, after Royal Haskoning was contacted by the Dutch government to reconsider taking part, since it could 'violate international law'. The plant was to be based beyond the Green Line. Thus, despite the fact that the sewage project would benefit both Palestinian and Israeli residents, Royal Haskoning decided to avoid any further problems and pulled out. Nonetheless, the firm does take part in a massive joint venture with the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Transport in the municipality of Dammam, despite a growing number of executions and other human rights violations in the Saudi kingdom. There have been no reports of 'reconsidering' that undertaking.

Double Standard

The Dutch government is very clear on discouraging companies from economic involvement beyond the Green Line, as I assume any involvement made public in the media has consequences for other policies and interests of The Netherlands and/or Europe in the Middle East.  However the double standard does not only manifest itself as the result of Western economic ties with the Arab world or oil dependence. Since the Israeli victory of the Six Day War in 1967, it has become completely salonfähig to demonstrate anti-Israel [or anti-Zionist] sentiments in The Netherlands or in Europe for that matter.

Anti-Israel sentiments are for instance exposed in the academic world as well.  A joint group of researchers, teachers, professors, workers in educational institutions and other sympathizers in The Netherlands are now using PGGM's withdrawal as a precedent to pressure pension fund ABP [for government and education employees] for divestment as well. They have written a petition which calls for ABP to follow PGGM's example. In an open letter by the title 'Stop Funding Israeli Apartheid', they refer to themselves as 'people of conscience working in the field of education' and state that 'the Israeli state continuously denies Palestinians access to education and structurally erases Palestinians from its history books.' They also refer to '[...] discriminatory laws towards the Palestinian community in Israel, the permanent isolation of Gaza, and the construction of an illegal apartheid wall.'

Despite a gross distortion of the factual reality and the highly subjective and one-sided approach, which is concerning coming from academic scholars who aspire to provide ethical insight to the public, ABP has nevertheless publicly stated that it has put the issue on the agenda. Will ABP be the next company to give in?


A statement by Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans as published in the Jerusalem Post of last year explains his position towards Israel: "Europe judges Israel by a different standard than other countries in the region because it is seen as a 'European country' that should be judged by European standards [...]."

It is exactly this statement which encapsulates the predicament we are faced with: Under which mandate has Europe been given the authority to judge Israel, and moreover, to judge it by such a [different] standard as to which it serves Europe's own interests?

Do European nations tolerate criticism from Israel on their economic ties with countries that do not even acknowledge Israel's right to exist? Moreover, with countries and governments in the Middle East that fund terrorism against the Jewish state?

If I could make one judgment, it would be that social responsibility does not involve excluding one country on top of discriminating accusations and condemnations, whereby all other problems seem to be neglected. Blaming is the easy part, especially in a safe environment such as in The Netherlands; however I believe that social responsibility is to be introspective and fair-minded during the challenges we are faced with.

Israel faces many challenges, and it would not be very fruitful if Israel would exclude and condemn every country that has violated its rights at any time in history. Social responsibility for Israel means opening up for dialogue and cooperation with challenging partners to create a better environment for all parties involved.