Israel said to mull downgrading ties with Europeans over labeling
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This is not math but diplomacy, source says, and obviously we will not harm our own interests

Israel said to mull downgrading ties with Europeans over labeling

Envoys from 16 countries may be reprimanded, and meetings limited to low-tier diplomats; expertise-sharing on fighting terror could be cut

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini (left) meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York, September 30, 2015. (Courtesy PMO)
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini (left) meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York, September 30, 2015. (Courtesy PMO)

Israel has reportedly decided upon punitive measures against 16 European countries that pushed the European Union’s foreign policy chief to promote an initiative to label products made in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.

The measures against the countries are expected to include reprimanding ambassadors of all 16 countries and limiting their contact with Israeli officials to meetings with low-level staffers, according to a Wednesday report in Hebrew-language daily Yedioth Ahronoth.

Jerusalem may also minimize the amount of expertise it shares with Europe on issues like fighting terror and dealing with migrants.

The countries are Britain, France, Denmark, Spain, Ireland, Croatia, Malta, Holland, Sweden, Portugal, Slovenia, Italy, Luxembourg, Austria, Belgium and Finland.

The EU last week published guidelines on labeling Israeli products from the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Golan Heights, drawing harsh condemnation from politicians, including some who said the measure was akin to anti-Semitism.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu again lashed out at the decision, calling it “heinous” — a term usually reserved in diplomatic speech for violent crimes or terror attacks.

“This is absolutely absurd. It’s morally abhorrent because on the soil of Europe, within living memory, Jewish products were labeled. Jewish stores were labeled. And I’d expect, with all the frustration, for Europe not to adapt this heinous act which has such horrible historic overtones,” he said.

The EU ambassador in Israel has defended the move as a technical decision meant to standardize guidelines across the bloc’s 28 countries.

Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely gives a press conference on November 3, 2015, in the Lipski plastic factory at the Barkan Industrial Park near the Israeli settlement of Ariel in the West Bank, on the European Union's (EU) decision to label goods made in Jewish settlements. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)
Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely gives a press conference on November 3, 2015, in the Lipski plastic factory at the Barkan Industrial Park near the Israeli settlement of Ariel in the West Bank, on the European Union’s (EU) decision to label goods made in Jewish settlements. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

The steps the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem is considering may not be equal in severity for all countries involved, according to the report. Italy and Holland are considered closer to Israel than Ireland or Sweden, and may get off easier.

“We will decide for each state separately,” an unnamed diplomatic official told the tabloid. “This is not math but diplomacy — and obviously we will not harm our own interests. It would be foolish to make moves which will end harming us. We walk a thin line here between sending a clear message but on the other hand avoiding harming our own interests.”

The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem declined to comment to the Times of Israel on the report.

According to Yedioth, ambassadors who could until now meet the prime minister or government ministers will now be downgraded to meeting department heads and other professional staff at the ministries.

This would minimize the ambassadors’ influence and effectively limit the amount of influence the European countries thus penalized can have on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In addition, Israel will consider on a one-by-one basis whether to allow or ban European dignitaries from entering the Gaza Strip or the West Bank, the diplomatic official told the paper.

Israel, the report said, will also more stringently monitor EU support of projects in the West Bank or in Gaza. The projects, intended to ease the lives of Palestinians, also give their European sponsors influence over decisions in the area.

The Europeans “are leading many projects and they seek our support, but you cannot take steps against us and hope that everything will be business as usual,” the unnamed official said. “Whoever has taken hostile actions against us will pay a price.”

Prime Minister Netanyahu sent EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini a letter warning that the decision to label products may harm Israel-EU relations just before the union announced the move.

The EU has been mulling the decision since April but it was only decided upon last week.

Israel, in response, complained of a double standard, citing other other unresolved territorial disputes in which the EU has no special designation for areas considered occupied.

In a document regarding the decision, the 28-member union defined it as a recommendation, not an obligatory step. Hungary announced this week it would not label products.

Raphael Ahren contributed to this report

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