NETIV HAGDUD, West Bank - An international campaign to boycott Israeli settlement products has rapidly turned from a distant nuisance into a harsh economic reality for Israeli farmers in the West Bank's Jordan Valley.
The export-driven income of growers in the valley's 21 settlements dropped by more than 14 percent, or $29 million, last year, largely because Western European supermarket chains, particularly those in Britain and Scandinavia, are increasingly shunning the area's peppers, dates, grapes and fresh herbs, settlers say.
"The damage is enormous," said David Elhayani, head of the Jordan Valley Regional Council, which represents about 7,000 settlers. "In effect, today, we are almost not selling to the (Western) European market anymore.
Israel has played down the impact of the campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions launched by Palestinian activists in 2005 to pressure Israel to withdraw from occupied lands.
"By and large, it's unpleasant background noise," said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor, arguing that its overall effects have been negligible.
However, the lament of the Jordan Valley farmers comes against the backdrop of a growing debate in Israel about the aftermath of a possible failure of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's latest mediating mission. Kerry wants to forge an agreement on the outlines of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal despite major disagreements between the sides.
Israeli supporters of a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians have warned that Israel could face a snowballing boycott of the magnitude that brought down apartheid in South Africa if it rebuffs proposals Kerry is to present in coming weeks.
Finance Minister Yair Lapid, speaking to the news website Ynet, warned Israelis on Friday that "a continuation of the existing situation will hurt the pocketbook of each of us," particularly by hitting exports.
The Palestinians, too, could face repercussions if the talks collapse, such as less foreign aid from Europe.
The fate of the Jordan Valley has featured prominently in Kerry's meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. The Palestinians want a state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem lands Israel captured in 1967 and the valley would form Palestine's eastern border with Jordan.
Kerry reportedly proposed that Israel maintain military control of that border for at least 10 years after a peace deal to address Israeli concerns about a surprise Arab attack or the possible influx of weapons and militants. Israeli security hawks say the valley must remain under Israeli control forever. The Palestinians argue that this would prevent them from establishing a viable state because they need the farm lands and open spaces.
Uzi Dayan, a former Israeli national security adviser, said Israel needs the valley, which makes up close to one-fourth of the West Bank, for strategic depth.
"Being here in the Jordan Valley, it is something existential," he said this week, standing on a mountaintop overlooking sprawling date palm plantations. "The national security of Israel is based on defensible borders, not on boycotts."
But economic worries are growing for some of the valley's farmers.
Niva Benzion, who lives in the Netiv Hagdud settlement, used to sell 80 percent of her sweet peppers and grapes to supermarket chains in Western Europe, particularly in Britain.
Sales to Western Europe plummeted in the past two years, she said, adding that she now sells mostly to Eastern Europe and Russia, for up to 40 percent less. She reduced her growing area by one-third this season and doubts she can make ends meet in the future.
The European Union says Israel's settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem are illegal under international law, but has not called for a consumer boycott of settlement products.