The European Union Ambassador to Israel played down the significance of the EU’s adoption Wednesday of labeling guidelines for products from Jewish settlements, arguing that the move was a “technical matter” aimed at clarifying previous legislation.
“This is a small technical addition to something that has existed for a very long time, the trade facilitation between products coming from Israel proper, within its 1967 lines, and products coming from beyond the Green Line, but I want to emphasize strongly that this is not a boycott,” said Ambassador Lars Faaborg-Andersen.
The move kicked up a flurry of condemnations in Israel.
“Product labeling does not advance any political process between Israel and the Palestinians,” said Joel Lion, the director of the Foreign Ministry’s Public and Academic Affairs Department. “The opposite is the case – it is bound to reinforce the Palestinian Authority’s refusal to conduct direct negotiations with Israel, negotiations that the EU claims to support.
“Product labeling will strengthen the radical elements advocating a boycott against Israel and denying Israel’s right to exist, contradicting positions that the EU publicly opposes,” he said.
Addressing journalists in Jerusalem Wednesday, Faaborg-Andersen said that the guidelines adopted by the EU use the United Kingdom way of labeling products from outside of the 1967 borders with the phrase: “Produced in West Bank (Israeli settlement) or Produced in West Bank (Palestinian product).” The same phrasing would be used for products from the Golan Heights.
“The EU does not recognize this as part of Israel, and this is also the view of 99% of the international community,” he said. “These products are still welcome, they just need to have the correct indication of origin on them.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the EU should be “ashamed of itself” for announcing the labeling scheme. The move is “hypocritical and applies double standards, targeting Israel when there are over 200 other conflicts around the world,” he said in a statement.
Faaborg-Andersen was summoned to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem Wednesday evening for a dressing down, during which he was informed that Israel was pulling out from several bilateral EU forums dealing with the Palestinian issue.
The Foreign Ministry also accused the EU of ignoring more than 200 territorial conflicts around the world by singling out Israel as the only place requiring separate labels for occupied territories. Faaborg-Andersen confirmed that the labeling guidelines were only applicable to Israel. In Cyprus, where Turkey has occupied Northern Cyprus since 1974, the EU does not label products that are from Occupied Northern Cyprus, since they are transported to southern Cyprus and exported from there, he explained.
There is approximately 30 billion euros of trade between the European Union and Israel, with Israel importing 17 billion euros worth of goods each year and exporting 13 billion euros’ worth. Trade with areas beyond the 1967 borders account for 1 percent of the yearly trade.
Faaborg-Andersen said that consumers in the European Union have a right to know the origin of their products, and member states had been “asking for this guidance for a number of years.”
He did note Belgium, England and Denmark have independently insisted on labeling goods from settlements for the past few years and in some cases that has led to a decrease in sales of Israeli products in those countries.
Products from outside of Israel’s 1967 borders were already separated from other Israeli products going to the EU as early as 1995, when the EU and Israel first signed a trade agreement allowing Israeli exporters not to pay EU customs tax. Products from the settlements and the Golan Heights were not given a customs tax exemption, though the Israeli government refunded farmers in these areas for the taxes they had to pay, according to Jordan Valley Regional Council mayor David Elhaiini.
However, Faaborg-Andersen insisted that Wednesday’s decision would not negatively affect diplomatic relations.
“Given the quite marginal nature of this interpretative notice, we don’t expect it to have any major impact on EU-Israel relations,” he said. “It is a small update to something that has been in effect for ten years.”
Israeli politicians slammed the guidelines, with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon calling the move “a shameful step giving a prize to terrorism and the people behind it.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.