The European Union will not seek to ban the labeling of products from West Bank settlements as “Made in Israel,” but the recent wave of countries trying to impose variations of such a measure highlights the world’s increasing disapproval of Jerusalem’s settlement policies, according to the union’s ambassador in Israel.
“The labeling issue is not something that would be adopted at the EU level. That is done at the level of the individual member countries: some may decide to do it, some may not,” Andrew Standley, the head of the union’s delegation to Israel, told The Times of Israel.
The debate about the labeling issue flared up earlier this month when a South African minister announced plans to prohibit merchants from labeling products from the West Bank as “Made in Israel.” Since then, the Danish foreign minister and an environmentalist party in Malta have made similar announcements. The Irish foreign minister has suggested the European Union ban imports from the territories.
But in a wide-ranging interview, Standley said he was not aware of any discussion within the EU of boycotting goods and that the union had no authority to decide how countries label the produce they import.
The EU is Israel’s biggest trade partner, with about 30% of all exports going to member states. The EU-Israel trade agreement makes a clear distinction “between goods which originate from what we recognize to be Israeli territory, which therefore have preferential access to the European market, and other goods that do not originate from that territory and therefore are not eligible to receive preferential access,” Standley said.
Trade issues such as customs are decided on a EU-wide level, which means that individual member states have no say regarding tariffs to apply to particular goods coming into the EU. Issues such as labeling, on the other hand, are dealt with exclusively on a national level.
“So that’s their decision — what action they take or don’t take,” Standley said, adding that currently he is aware only of the existence of a voluntary labeling scheme in the UK, which was introduced a few years ago.
“But I think the one thing which is important to notice is that if these decisions are taken by a number of individual countries in the EU, this is a reflection of concern that goods are being produced and entering the market in a way that they consider to be misleading,” he added. “That’s the main argument that’s being put forward, as consumer protection. But it’s also a reflection of concern of the origin of those goods. It’s both a technical labeling consumer information issue but there is obviously an underlying a political concern.”
Israeli officials reacted angrily to the South African move to prohibit labeling West Bank products as being from Israel. Foreign Ministry spokesmen suggested the measure “smacks of racism” because Pretoria focuses on Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians while ignoring more than 200 other territorial conflicts around the world.
But Standley rejected the idea that such proposals are racist in nature. “It’s true, whether fortunately or unfortunately: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has received much more international attention in the last 60 years than many other conflicts,” he said. “There are many explanations for that, some of them good, some of them not so good. But it’s an objective fact. The labeling issue, if it develops in that direction, is simply another manifestation of it.”
While trade is growing, political relations between Israel and the EU are frosty at best. Last week, the union’s Foreign Affairs Council slammed Israel for the “acceleration of settlement construction,” settler violence and Jerusalem’s decisions to retroactively legalize some West Bank outposts. The Foreign Ministry retorted that the council’s accusations are “partial, biased and one-sided.”
Speaking as the government grapples with legislative proposals to retroactively legalize Israeli settlements built on private Palestinian land, Standley reiterated the EU’s positions vis-à-vis all construction beyond the Green Line.
“Whether this law is adopted or not, our fundamental position — which is that all settlements in the occupied territories are illegal and an obstacle to peace, and that further construction be stopped — that remains an absolutely firm position,” he said. “Whatever law is adopted is an internal Israeli arrangement, which does not really change our fundamental position regarding the illegality of these settlements.”
While the Knesset is a sovereign institution that can pass laws as it pleases, the EU is worried about the signal such a law would send, especially regarding Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, he said.
“We’re concerned by the prospect of a two-state solution getting more and more complicated,” Standley stressed. “If there is to be a negotiated solution to this conflict it will have to cover various elements, including the question of territory, borders, settlements. And whether there has been a law legalizing those settlements under Israeli law or not, the issue would still remain to be negotiated between the Israelis and the Palestinians if the two-state solution is to be achieved.”
‘Our bible is international law’
Earlier this week, Standley found himself defending the EU’s position to the “Rabbinical Congress for Peace,” a hawkish group that came to his Ramat Gan office to try to convince him that Jewish law prohibits Israel from dividing the land.
According to the group’s website, the rabbis told the ambassador that it is “absolutely forbidden to give up an inch of land to the Arabs based on the clear Halacha in the Jewish Code of Law Chapter 329 that the sanctity of life overrides all other considerations and giving up land has proven more than once that it leads to violence, bloodshed and instability.”
Standley was respectful but unimpressed.
“I said, I hear from you that the Bible is your framework. The framework that we operate in is the framework of international law. In terms of international law, there is a very clear position with regards to the status of different pieces of territory,” he recalled. “We might just have to agree to disagree. You have your Bible, we have international law – which is our bible.”