Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Uri Ariel on Friday said that while Washington’s decision to issue a reminder that products imported from the West Bank or the Gaza Strip should not be labeled “Made in Israel” may not necessarily imply a shift in policy, the decision itself and its timing were nevertheless “unreasonable, unfair and inappropriate.”
Speaking with Israel Radio, Ariel, a former settlement leader from the Orthodox-nationalist Jewish Home party, added that Israel should consider whether it truly needs to have an agricultural attache remain in the United States. He said Israel should weigh other options as well, such as transferring the attache to India or China.
The guidance concerning products imported from the West Bank or the Gaza Strip was issued last week by US Customs, and the State Department confirmed the reminder Thursday. Debate has erupted after media reports suggested Washington was hardening its stance against Israeli settlement policy. Sources in the Israeli Foreign Ministry said Thursday night that they were studying the new US notice, and the ministry said Friday the ruling was merely a reminder of a 21-year-old policy. But Army Radio on Friday reported it as a significant concession to “Palestinian pressure.”
The move came days after US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro sharply criticized Israel’s West Bank settlement policy, alleging that Israel has two standards of law in the territory — one for Israelis; and another for Palestinians. Shapiro’s remarks prompted a furious critique from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The PM has also frequently lambasted the European Union for its policy of requiring labels on West Bank settlement products, while the US has backed the EU position.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Thursday 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 US Customs statement, visible on the agency’s website, restates the terms of 1995 and 1997 laws requiring that goods from Gaza and the West Bank be labeled as such.
“It is not acceptable to mark the aforementioned goods with the words ‘Israel,’ ‘Made in Israel,’ ‘Occupied Territories-Israel’ or any variation thereof,” the statement said.
Some Israeli settlers living in the West Bank are known to label products for export as being from Israel, and the European Union recently acted to ban the practice.
The US reminder, unlike the EU guidelines, does not mention the Golan Heights, seized from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War and effectively annexed in 1981.
The State Department reminder underscored ongoing US opposition to Israel’s settlement policies.
Ambassador Shapiro last week said the US administration was “concerned and perplexed” by Israel’s settlement policy, which he said raised “honest questions about Israel’s long-term intentions.”
The comments drew a harsh response from Netanyahu’s office, which called them “unacceptable and incorrect.”
Shapiro later apologized for the timing of his remarks — which came a day after a Palestinian teenager killed a Jewish mother of six in the West Bank settlement of Otniel, and on the day that a pregnant woman was stabbed in another Palestinian attack in the Tekoa settlement. But he stood by the content of his comments.
Netanyahu has also repeatedly condemned the European labeling move, which Israel feels discriminates against Jewish producers and amounts to a boycott. For its part, by contrast, the State Department last week came out in support of the European Union labeling guidelines, and said that settlement product labeling is not tantamount to a boycott.
Earlier this month, the prime minister called for a “reset” in relations with the EU, accusing it of unfairly singling out Israel.
“We have to reset our relationship with the EU. I hope we can do this on better terms,” the prime minister told foreign journalists in Jerusalem.
“There is a natural tendency in the EU establishment to single out Israel and treat it in ways that other countries are not being dealt with, and especially other democracies,” he said. “And I think it’s wrong. I think it should be corrected.”
The United States opposes Israel’s settlements, but insists its labeling regulations don’t discriminate between Israeli and Palestinian producers.
“Our understanding is that there were allegations of mislabeling, around nine or 10 complaints,” Toner said, explaining why US Customs had reissued its guidance.
“As you know, US guidelines don’t differentiate between products produced in settlements or anywhere else in the West Bank,” he said.