An Israeli television report on Tuesday night alleged that a newly enforced US Customs policy to label products from the West Bank was not merely a technicality, but an “under the radar” US government policy change with regard to the settlements.
Last month, Washington issued a reminder that products imported from the West Bank or Gaza Strip should not be labeled “Made in Israel,” in accordance with a 1995 law. The reminder prompted debate after media reports suggested Washington was hardening its stance against Israeli settlement activity, a claim that US officials denied.
But, according to a Channel 2 report that cited the Israeli group The International Legal Forum, the original legislation was designed solely to apply to Palestinian products manufactured in areas under Palestinian control.
The “very, very strange and unusual” reminder to enforce the policy “means that for 20 years, the US Customs made a mistake or misinterpreted the directive,” the TV report said. “That’s very uncharacteristic for the Americans.”
The TV report proceeded to quote the group calling out the US for what it termed its “bluff.” The International Legal Forum maintained that the original law referred only to Palestinian products, while the new instructions would apply the “Made in the West Bank” label to products made in Jewish settlements as well.
The organization cited a 1995 document from US Customs, which appears to state that the policy does not extend to Jewish settlements, Jerusalem, and military sites in the West Bank. The Times of Israel could not immediately verify the veracity of the Forum’s explanation for the law. The report also did not make clear whether the labeling had been reintroduced since the directive was reissued in January.
The NGO accused the State Department of being dishonest with the American public, and with Israel. Washington has effectively started labeling West Bank products “without the pressures” that the European Union had to deal with and “under the radar,” it charged.
US officials denied the allegations, telling Channel 2 there was no State Department involvement in the US Customs decision.
The TV report maintained that while the issue was causing a stir in the US Congress, the Israeli government has remained silent, recognizing that speaking up could “cause more harm than good.”
In late January, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said that the US decision to reissue its labeling policy had been taken after complaints that some West Bank products had been mislabeled prior to US import. “US Customs and Border Protection reissued guidance on their marking requirements,” he told reporters. “It in no way supersedes prior rulings or regulations. And nor does it impose additional requirements with respect to merchandise imported from the West Bank, Gaza Strip or Israel.”
The European Union recently announced that it would label West Bank products, drawing fierce criticism from Israel. Israel feels the labeling discriminates against Jewish producers and amounts to a boycott. For its part, by contrast, the State Department last month came out in support of the European Union labeling guidelines, and said that settlement product labeling is not tantamount to a boycott.
The White House announced Thursday that President Barack Obama would sign a trade bill despite it containing a provision that lumps together Israel and “Israeli-controlled territories.” Such language, meaning that the bill is applicable to Israel and the settlements, “contravenes longstanding US policy towards Israel and the occupied territories, including with regard to Israeli settlement activity,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said in a statement, hours after the measure was approved in the Senate by a vote of 75-20.
Nonetheless, while the president objects to that particular facet of the legislation, Earnest suggested his accepting it, and signing the bill, was part of the nature of bipartisan compromise. “As with any bipartisan compromise legislation, there are provisions in this bill that we do not support,” he said.