JERUSALEM (AP) — A Dutch water company's decision to cut ties with Israel's national water carrier over its operations in the West Bank sparked anger in Israel on Wednesday, in the latest instance of growing international impatience with Israel's settlement enterprise.
Vitens, the largest drinking water supplier in the Netherlands, said it was ending its joint projects with the Mekorot water company since "these cannot be seen outside their political context." The European Union, along with most of the international community, considers Israeli settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem illegal and an obstacle to the establishment of a Palestinian state in territories Israel conquered in the 1967 Mideast war. With nearly 600,000 Israelis now living on lands captured in 1967, the Palestinians say the continued settlement construction is a sign of bad faith and making it ever more difficult to partition the land.
Israeli settlement practices have come under heavy international criticism since peace talks with the Palestinians resumed in July. A series of Israeli announcements to build more settlement homes have drawn international condemnations and Palestinian threats to walk out of the talks, and prompted U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to question Israel's commitment to peace.
Last month, Israel acceded to a European funding ban on projects in the occupied territories by assuring the EU it would not spend money received under a technology-sharing pact in the West Bank or east Jerusalem. And earlier this week, Britain's overseas trade body issued a warning to firms investing in Israeli settlements, saying ties to the Israeli communities established in the West Bank could be bad for business.
Israel has rejected the criticism of its settlements, saying their fate should be resolved through negotiations. Israeli Foreign Ministry Spokesman Yigal Palmor said that Vitens' decision was "devoid of any common sense," particularly since the Israeli company has cooperated closely with Jordan and the Palestinians on water projects under the auspices of the World Bank.
"They have probably caved into political pressure by anti-Israel groups, and in their eagerness to pander to those groups they have scored high points in the theater of the absurd," he said. But Tzipi Livni, Israel's chief peace negotiator, said the Dutch decision reflected just how isolated Israel has become over the settlement issue.
Speaking at Tel Aviv University, said said "it hurts my heart" to see the Dutch end cooperation with Mekorot, which does work in the West Bank on behalf of Israelis and Palestinians. "But in the international community no one cares what actually happens. It's enough that they're located there to reject them," she said.
The Israeli government has been struggling to balance its ideological support for settlements while preserving the country's economic ties to Western allies at a time when it is increasingly isolated. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party, as well as many of his coalition partners, are filled with supporters of the Jewish settlements.
In another potential stumbling block for Israel, Romania said Wednesday that a plan it is negotiating with Israel to send it much-needed construction workers will have to adhere to EU requirements that they not be employed in the settlements.
"Romania is constantly respecting international law, the positions of the European Union as well as the protection of Romanian citizens who are outside the national territory," Romania's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Associated Press reporters Mike Corder in The Hague and Alison Mutler in Bucharest contributed to this report.