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Along with international boycott efforts, Israeli settlements also facing pressure from within

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PESAGOT, Palestine - These days, when Yaakov Berg tries to sell his award-winning line of Psagot boutique wines, he encounters obstacles from every direction. As a Jewish vintner in a West Bank settlement, his product is increasingly considered off-limits.

"Not just overseas, also in Tel Aviv," says Berg, 37. "So we have big problems. Actually, it's almost impossible to sell in (Tel Aviv) restaurants."

With Israel mired in a struggle to combat growing calls in Europe to boycott Israeli products and businesses with ties to the controversial settlements, a quieter and more informal campaign is subtly emerging at home among Israelis themselves.

Israelis who may have long supported peace but also considered the settlements no big deal are starting to ask why Israel continues building there in the face of what looks like a rare global consensus against them verging on outrage.

And even among Israelis who consider the West Bank Israel's by right, there seems to be some discomfort now with continued investment in the West Bank instead of a genuine effort to address an internal housing crisis and other social ills in Israel.

Although no formal movement exists, a de facto distancing from the settlement enterprise is increasingly evident, especially in people refraining from buying settlement products ranging from wines to organic produce and cosmetics made from the Dead Sea.

"As an Israeli, I oppose a regime in the West Bank that I find illegitimate and I don't want any part of it so I make an effort not to buy those products," said Yaron Racah, a 38-year-old high-tech worker from the Tel Aviv area. "If I can't help stop it, at least I can do no more harm by taking an active part in something I don't believe in."

More than 550,000 Israelis live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, contiguous areas captured in the 1967 war, amid roughly 2.5 million Palestinians. In 2013, Israeli authorities advanced plans for more than 14,000 apartments in settlements in various approval stages, according to the Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now.

Palestinians say these areas, plus the Gaza Strip on the other side of Israel along the seacoast, should form their future state. They complain that the growing settler population makes it ever more difficult to partition the Holy Land into Israel and a Palestinian state.

Some Israelis see a big security risk in giving up the West Bank, which commands the highland over central Israel. Many religious Jews see it as their biblical heartland.

The issue has taken centre stage in ongoing U.S.-mediated peace talks, with Secretary of State John Kerry saying that continued construction raises questions about Israel's commitment to peace. He and top European officials have warned that Israel could face increased isolation and economic pressure if peace talks fail and settlements grow.

Hanging in the air is the question of what happens if Israel becomes truly inseparable from the West Bank. With 6 million Jews and 2 million Arab citizens inside Israel, a merging together with the West Bank does not look much like a "Jewish state."

Some on both sides say the point of no return may have already been crossed. And nervousness over this prospect is driving some Israelis to positions that would have seemed implausibly radical just a few years ago.

Zehava Galon, head of the dovish opposition Meretz Party, said that while she opposes international boycott efforts against Israel as a whole, she refrains from consuming settler products because there must be a "price to the occupation."

"It is unacceptable. Whoever thought they could deceive the entire world succeeded for a few years but that is over," she said.

Some academics have refrained from co-operating with their settler colleagues, a trickle of actors have refused to perform in theatres in the settlements and, in some cases, reserve soldiers have refused to report for guard duty in settlements. In parliament, dovish lawmakers have recently been pushing for more transparency in funding for the settlements.

Some Israelis even quietly speak of the need for even harsher action by the world, in particular by the European Union, which affords Israel a special status that is key to its people's sense of normalcy and has them competing in European sports championships and events like the Eurovision Song Contest.

Amira Hass, a columnist for the Haaretz daily who is considered unabashedly pro-Palestinian by many of her fellow Israelis, called on European countries to stop allowing Israelis to visit without applying for visas in advance.

"Disruption of our freedom of movement and the chances of being refused visas would be a well-placed warning sign, telling us that our normality is nothing more than an illusion," she wrote Wednesday.

Given that some in Israel have accused international boycott advocates of being anti-Semitic, such domestic parallels are a sensitive issue.

Yoram Cohen, of the Tanya winery in the settlement of Ofra, called the Israeli boycotters "trendy" hypocrites who had no problem purchasing wine from countries with much worse human rights records. Berg said he was afraid that a vocal minority was "poisoning" the public discourse and influencing others to shun settlement products.

Businesses that operate in settlements, including SodaStream, an international maker of carbonated beverage machines that recently ran an ad featuring actress Scarlett Johansson during the Super Bowl, say they provide well-paying jobs to Palestinians. But Palestinian officials say the presence of settlements stifles their own economic development.

Along with other West Bank wineries, Berg recently went public with news that dozens of Tel Aviv restaurants were boycotting their wines in hopes of shaming them into reversing course.

The Associated Press contacted more than a dozen Tel Aviv restaurants, including some named by settlers. All refused to discuss the subject.

It wasn't just the fear of alienating clients that likely deterred them from speaking but also a 2011 law in Israel that could expose them to lawsuits if a boycott became official. The law did not make a boycott call a criminal offence, but rather a civil issue that could trigger financial compensation. There is no actual precedent of this happening yet.

Among consumers, feelings are mixed.

"We need to show that there are people here that disagree with the settlements, (that) not everybody thinks this is OK," said Tel Aviv resident Chai Hazen. "If a boycott is the way to do it ... that's what we will do."

But fellow Tel Aviv resident Tali Biton said the internal divisions only harmed the country's image and its economy.

Yaniv Rosner, who runs a liquor store in neighbouring Kfar Saba, said clients rejecting settler wine was a rare thing. Either way. He added, wine and politics should stay apart: "Give me a good wine from Lebanon and I will sell it too."

Rosner said that finding Israelis who specifically avoided settler wine was "such a minor phenomenon that if I said I encountered it once a month I'd be exaggerating."


Heller reported from Raanana, Israel.

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