EU envoy: I don’t get why Israel makes such a fuss about labeling

Jerusalem proudly declares that it has the right to build everywhere in its homeland, so why does it mind if we mark settlement goods, Ambassador Faaborg-Andersen asks

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

The EU ambassador to Israel, Lars Faaborg-Andersen, in his Ramat Gan office, September 21, 2015 (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)
The EU ambassador to Israel, Lars Faaborg-Andersen, in his Ramat Gan office, September 21, 2015 (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

The European Union’s ambassador to Israel said he fails to understand why Jerusalem is making such a “big fuss” about the EU’s plan to label Israeli products from the West Bank, since Israel has already accepted the union’s policy to distinguish between goods made in Israel proper and the settlements.

In a recent interview, Ambassador Lars Faaborg-Andersen said Israel is not bashful about the settlements and asserts its right to build everywhere on its homeland, so he wonders why the Israeli government so vehemently objects to the EU attaching labels for goods produced there.

The envoy rejected the notion that labeling is equivalent to a boycott, arguing that, on the contrary, singling out settlement products is “actually an advantage” in that it “might even improve” the standing of goods from Israel proper.

The interview was conducted before the outbreak of the current wave of terror and violence engulfing Israel, which the EU has said “highlights once more the necessity for a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Speaking to The Times of Israel in his office at the EU’s Ramat Gan embassy, Faaborg-Andersen said the EU-Israel Association Agreement — which was signed in 1995, and, after being ratified by the European Parliament and the Knesset, took effect five years later — stipulates that preferential customs rates for goods from Israel proper do not apply for products made outside the country’s Israel’s internationally recognized borders. Israel, albeit reluctantly, accepted these terms, thus consciously going along with EU policy to differentiate between Israel and the settlements.

‘You seem to be very proud of your own settlement enterprise, so why is labeling such a big problem?’

“So why are you’re coming here 10 years after [that agreement was signed], objecting to something you already agreed on?” he said. “Why didn’t you object to the whole setup at that stage? Why are you coming 10 years later when we are just implementing one of the details that flows from that original acceptance, and making a big fuss about it here,” Faaborg-Andersen said.

Jerusalem considers the settlements a totally legitimate enterprise, affirms its right to build in its own capital and takes offense at the international community condemning announcements of settlement expansions, the Danish-born diplomat said. “So what’s the problem then? Why are you so afraid that it stipulates on the products that they’re coming from a settlement? You seem to be very proud of your own settlement enterprise, so why is this such a big problem? That puzzles me a bit.”

Jerusalem reacted angrily to Faaborg-Andersen’s comments. The reference to the 2005 Association Agreement is “mistaken and misleading, and ignores significant facts,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Nahshon told The Times of Israel.

“The technical agreement that was agreed upon with the EU at the time only deals with the EU’s right to exempt [settlement goods] from customs exceptions that the EU itself had granted [products from Israel proper]. In absolutely no way does it justify any discrimination against Israeli products via labeling.”

Nahshon also took umbrage at Faaborg-Andersen’s professed astonishment about Israel objecting to labeling despite being “proud” of its settlement activity.

“Cynicism and fake humor cannot disguise the discriminatory nature of steps that have the characteristics of a boycott,” he said. “The EU knows well the position and the policy of the Israeli government on this matter [the introduction of a labeling regime], around which there is a political consensus in Israel.”

Israeli politicians from the right to the center have forcefully decried the EU’s plan to introduce a labeling regime — expected to be announced in the coming weeks — saying it is tantamount to a full-blown boycott of all Israelis, and making comparisons to the Nazi policies against Jewish store owners.

Just last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the union’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, during a meeting in New York that the labeling scheme “for many Israelis this recalls dark days in Europe” and “it hardens Israeli domestic opinion,” according to a statement released by his office.

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)

Faaborg-Andersen fiercely rebutted these claims, adding that he finds claims of European anti-Semitism in this context misplaced. The EU will not be deterred by such accusations and go ahead with its plans, he asserted.

“The products that we’re talking about will still be marketed freely on the European internal market of 500 million consumers,” he stated. “But they will just be marketed under the correct labeling, which says that they are from a settlement, and not from Israel,” he said. “The key point here is that there is a difference between Israel proper and anything beyond the Green Line.”

Comparisons between the EU’s labeling scheme and Nazi anti-Semitism are “totally out of place,” the ambassador fumed. “How would that have to do anything with anti-Semitism, which is a repulsive, absolutely condemnable phenomenon that we in the EU are clearly on record viewing as such?”

‘Labeling could actually be an advantage for Israel’

Labeling of West Bank goods has nothing to do with boycotts, he insisted. If anything, it might actually be detrimental to the efforts of the anti-Israel BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, Faaborg-Andersen posited.

Indeed, it could be argued that labeling is “exactly the opposite” of BDS, he suggested. “Because BDS is a general boycott that targets all Israeli products, from settlements and other places [within the Green Line]. Here [with our labeling scheme] we’re making a very important distinction, saying this has nothing to do with BDS. This has to do with a certain policy that Israel is pursuing when it comes to settlements that we disagree with and that we don’t want to support.”

In that sense, the EU’s introduction of a labeling regime could be construed as “actually an advantage,” Faaborg-Andersen proposed. It clearly distances the EU from the BDS movement and “might even improve the situation for goods coming from Israel proper.”

While acknowledging that there is a political aspect to the labeling initiative — admitting that it’s not, as EU officials sometimes argue, exclusively a matter of consumer protection — Faaborg-Andersen denied that it was designed to pressure Israel into concessions. After all, goods from the settlements make for less than 1 percent of Israeli exports into the EU.

“I could think of a couple of other areas where we would probably be able to put on more leverage, if that’s what we wanted.”

There is great “concern” about settlement expansion in the European public, which views it as “detrimental to furthering the peace process,” Faaborg-Andersen said. Therefore, no one should be surprised at the EU’s move to label such goods, enabling consumers to know the origins of the goods they found in their supermarkets.

“I don’t want to argue that there’s no political aspect to this,” the ambassador said. “If the settlements were at a level where they were almost marginal, then obviously there would be less attention to this particular issue, and then it might not have been that necessary to implement that particular provision,” he said regarding the labeling guidelines. But since “settlements are expanding all the time,” he said, the EU feels compelled to introduce a mechanism to inform customers about the origins of Israeli products.

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