Settlers Sell Merlot, Goat Cheese to Seduce Tel Aviv Foodies

  • Palestinians Say West Bank vineyards profit from occupation
  • Boycott of settlement goods steers wineries to domestic market

Watching warily from his vineyard in the West Bank settlement of Har Bracha as Palestinian boycott efforts picked up steam in Europe, Nir Lavi decided his best strategy was to focus on domestic customers such as the wine-and-cheese crowd in Tel Aviv, a bastion of left-wing politics.

Lavi opened a tasting boutique in Israel’s commercial and cultural capital, beckoning passersby to sample Merlots and Cabernets from a winery Palestinians say should be shuttered because it’s in occupied territory. When the venture flopped after six months, Lavi continued selling through a new wine shop on the city’s trendy Sheinkin Street, as well as liquor stores elsewhere in Israel. Other settlements targeting upscale Israelis sell artisanal goat cheese, shiitake mushrooms, Medjool dates and free-range eggs, among other fare.

Nir Lavi

Source: Har Bracha Winery

“While the boycott movement is making trouble for us overseas, we see an opportunity to expand our domestic market,” Lavi said in an interview at the vineyard’s restaurant on Mount Gerizim, which overlooks the Palestinian city of Nablus. “We’re saying to Israelis, ‘You may not want to come all the way out to us, but we’re willing to come to you and show you what we have to offer.’ ”

International support for the Palestinian campaign to isolate Israel commercially has been mixed. A Bloomberg analysis in June showed the boycott has failed to make a dent in the Israeli economy but has caused a few European pension funds, including Norway’s $860 billion sovereign wealth fund, to drop some Israeli holdings. Musicians such as Lauryn Hill and Elvis Costello have canceled performances and pressured other artists to stay away.

Controversial Profit

Palestinians say Israel profits illegally from the occupation of the West Bank, which it captured from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East war and which Palestinians say should be theirs. Israel considers the territory to be in dispute, and says its ownership can be determined only through negotiations.

“Israel has no right to build settlements on land they took from the Palestinians,” said Mustafa Barghouti, a doctor and politician who is one of the leaders of the boycott movement. “These products made in settlements are illegal and should be completely banned.”

Besides West Bank wineries such as Har Bracha, Psagot and Gvaot, the boycott has focused on vineyards in the Golan region, which Israel captured from Syria. Best known is the Golan Heights winery, the country’s third-largest.

Mount of Blessings

In the Bible, Moses instructed the Israelites to celebrate their entrance to Canaan with ceremonies of blessings and curses on Mount Gerizim and nearby Mount Ebal. The name of Lavi’s winery, which in Hebrew means Mount of Blessings, commemorates the story.

David Ben-Haim, a long-time customer in Tel Aviv, says Har Bracha’s Cabernet Sauvignon Highlander 2013, which retails for 115 shekels ($30), compares favorably with Golan’s Yarden wine.

“I wouldn’t say, ‘Wow!’ but it’s pretty good wine, not vinegar,” says Ben-Haim, a restaurant owner and retired police detective. Opening the settler boutique in Tel Aviv was “not a bad idea,” he said, adding that Lavi and his brother Matan just needed to be more patient. 

“I don’t care where the wine comes from, but nobody opening a business expects to make money within six months,” he said.

Made in Israel?

Exports from the settlements amounted to $615 million, or 0.5 percent of total Israeli exports in 2013, according to the Finance Ministry. They were 1.5 percent of exports to Europe, Israel’s biggest trading partner, where the boycott movement has made the most headway. Those are the most recent figures available, compiled for a February 2015 report by the ministry on the economic campaign against Israel.

The report came as the European Union was instituting guidelines requiring all products from the settlements to be labeled as such rather than “Made in Israel,” a step the Israeli government vigorously opposed.

The number of Israeli factories in the West Bank has nearly tripled to about 850 since 2011, according to the Yesha Council, which represents settlers. Some 600,000 Israelis now live in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem -- a figure that has doubled since 2000 -- amid some 2.7 million Palestinians. Lavi says Har Bracha has increased its production from 7,000 bottles a year when it opened in 2007 to 50,000 now.

Besides agricultural products, settlers are promoting tourism with a proliferation of bed-and-breakfasts across the West Bank, where many of the Bible’s key events took place. Busloads of Christian visitors come to the Shiloh archaeological park to see artifacts and a scale model of the ancient Tabernacle. Some Israelis take their children to the Deerland adventure park in the Gush Etzion area near Jerusalem and rent all-terrain vehicles for off-road driving in the Judean desert. 

While political opposition keeps many from visiting the settler wineries, others are deterred by the dangers of Palestinian rock-throwers and snipers who target Israeli vehicles along Route 60, the main traffic artery through the West Bank.

Palestinians say the settlement ventures compete unfairly with their own tourism industry and are steps toward an eventual Israeli annexation of the West Bank. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, revered by Christians as the traditional birthplace as Christ, is one of the biggest tourist draws for the Palestinians and helps fill dozens of hotels in the city. There is one Palestinian winery in the West Bank, opened last year by two Christian brothers who also run the Taybeh brewery that holds a popular Oktoberfest each year.

Spiting the Boycott

Though many Israelis favor withdrawing from the West Bank as part of an eventual peace agreement, settlers say they see little evidence that Israeli consumers avoid their products. Some may even prefer to buy settlement brands to spite the boycotters.

“We Israelis don’t want outsiders to determine for us where we are allowed and where we’re not allowed to manufacture goods,” said Oded Revivi, mayor of the Efrat settlement and chief foreign envoy and spokesman for the Yesha Council.

Back in Tel Aviv, Imanuel Aminof said he had a brief dispute with his partner over stocking Har Bracha wines at their ManoVino shop, opened six months ago. 

“She’s against the occupation,” Aminof said, “but we eventually agreed that we’re in business to sell good wine, not politics.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
LEARN MORE