EU sets guidelines on labeling settlement goods, drawing Israeli anger

Foreign Ministry vows to fight decision by European Council, says ties could be affected; EU argues move is technical, will barely affect trade

Workers at a cherry factory in a West Bank settlement, May 25, 2009. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Workers at a cherry factory in a West Bank settlement, May 25, 2009. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The European Union approved guidelines Wednesday for its member states to label products made in West Bank settlements, drawing angry condemnation from Israel and accusations of anti-Semitism.

At a meeting in Brussels, the European Commissioner “adopted this morning the interpretative notice on indication of origin of goods from the territories occupied by Israel since June 1967,” the EU’s executive said.

Wednesday’s move by the European Council, which will also apply to the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem, underscores the EU’s unhappiness over Israel’s continued expansion of settlements on territory that Palestinians are seeking for a future state.

According to the guidelines published, the labels will need to point out that the product is made in an Israeli settlement, and not just the geographical origin.

“For products from the West Bank or the Golan Heights that originate from settlements, an indication limited to ‘product from the Golan Heights’ or ‘product from the West Bank’ would not be acceptable. Even if they would designate the wider area or territory from which the product originates, the omission of the additional geographical information that the product comes from Israeli settlements would mislead the consumer as to the true origin of the product. In such cases the expression ‘Israeli settlement’ or equivalent needs to be added, in brackets, for example. Therefore, expressions such as ‘product from the Golan Heights (Israeli settlement)’ or ‘product from the West Bank (Israeli settlement)’ could be used,” the text reads.

The EU claimed the move, which has been in the works for over a year, was independent of any political considerations, and meant only to clarify misleading labels claiming that goods from the territories originated in Israel.

However, Jerusalem said it saw the decision as akin to a boycott on the state.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry responded to the move by summoning EU Ambassador Lars Faaborg-Anderson for a dressing down, Channel 10 reported.

The Foreign Ministry warned the decision could affect ties and accused Brussels in a statement of applying a double standard to Israel “while ignoring 200 other territorial disputes around the world.”

“Israel condemns the decision of the European Union to label Israeli goods originating over the ’67 lines. We regret that the EU chose for political reasons to take an unusual and discriminatory step drawn from the realm of boycotts, just as Israel is facing a wave of terror directed at all citizens,” the statement read. “The claim that this is a technical step is a cynical, baseless claim.”

The ministry added that labeling goods would not lead to peace with the Palestinians but instead bolster Palestinian refusal to negotiate.

“Labeling will strengthen radicals trying to advance boycotts on Israel and deny its right to exist, a stance that the EU claims to oppose,” the statement read.

The EU Commission said the guidelines are merely a technical measure it was forced to impose after three member states — Britain, Belgium and Denmark — already had imposed special labeling on their own, since the EU needed streamlined guidelines throughout the 28 nations.

“The EU does not support any form of boycott or sanctions against Israel. The EU does not intend to impose any boycott on Israeli exports from the settlements,” the EU said in a statement.

The measures will primarily cover fruit and vegetables from the area. The labeling should affect less than 1 percent of all trade between the EU and Israel, which stands at some 30 billion euros, according to the EU. European officials said that in Britain, where it is already in place, it has had no negative economic effect.

On some products, like fruit and vegetables, the labeling referring to settlements will be mandatory, while on others it will be voluntary.

The decision covers not only West Bank settlements, but also the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem, which were effectively annexed by Israel in the early 1980s, though the international community never recognized the move.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said the move unfairly singles out Israel, describing the decision as “anti-Israel and anti-Jewish.”

“European hypocrisy and hatred of Israel has crossed every line,” she said following the announcement.

Shaked told Israel Radio the government plans to fight the decision.

“We will study the decision once the full details are released and decide on the appropriate response,” she said. “We will consider legal steps if necessary.”

Exports from Jewish settlements — which consist mostly of agricultural products since there are no major technological companies there — are minuscule compared to those from Israel proper.

According to the most recent available statistics from the Israel Manufacturers Association, from 2012, exports from the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights amount to $100 million a year. That is about 0.7 percent of the approximately $14 billion the EU annually imports from within the Green Line. In 2014, it was exactly €13,070,556,887; or about NIS 57 billion.

There are 14 industrial zones with 800 factories and agricultural facilities in the West Bank, according to Yigal Dilmoni, a spokesman for the Yesha Council of Jewish settlements.

If these companies were to lose money due to labeling or a boycott, the 15,000 Palestinian workers they employ, who earn more than twice as much working for Jews as they would in the Palestinian Authority, would also be among those hurt, Dilmoni said. In that sense, he argued, labeling will not contribute to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but rather destroy one area in which peaceful coexistence currently exists.

“I don’t know how the world would react to the labeling,” Dilmoni said recently. “Yes, it could cause us some losses, but we will overcome it.”

Senior Israeli politicians, including from opposition parties, have branded the initiative anti-Semitic, comparing it to yellow stars Jews were forced to wear during the Holocaust.

“It is intolerable that Israel is the only country that has been singled out by the EU for such a policy, despite the fact that there are over 200 disputed territories worldwide,” Israel’s Foreign Ministry stated on its website Tuesday.

On Tuesday evening, Netanyahu met with a bipartisan group of US senators in Washington and urged them to assist Israel in fending off the EU’s decision to label West Bank goods. The 36 senators from both sides of the aisle on Monday sent a letter to the EU’s foreign policy czar Federica Mogherini protesting what they called a “de facto boycott” of Israel. “We believe strongly that these efforts are unwarranted, dangerous, and damaging to the prospects of a negotiated solution to [the Israeli-Palestinian] conflict,” the senators wrote.

European officials flatly reject any accusations of anti-Semitism. “This is an emotional argument without any relevance to the issue. It is not based on political grounds. It’s based on the logic that any product labeled made in Israel needs to be truly come from Israel and not from areas what are not internationally regarded as Israel,” a senior official said Tuesday. “This is the European Union saying what is has always said: The occupied territories are not part of the State of Israel.”

In April, the foreign ministers of 16 of the European Union’s 28 member states sent a letter to EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini asking her to promote the labeling of products from the settlements in store chains throughout Europe. Germany wasn’t among the signatories.

Then-foreign minister Avigdor Liberman strongly condemned the bid, suggesting that European nations might as well label them “with a yellow star” such as the one used by Nazi Germany to identify Jews before and during the Holocaust.

AFP contributed to this report.

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