Israel rejects Pretoria compromise on labeling settlement goods

While South African Jewish community hails ‘amazing’ victory, Jerusalem slams ‘discriminatory’ arrangement

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

South Africa's flag (photo credit: CC BY SA Privatemusings/Wikipedia)
South Africa's flag (photo credit: CC BY SA Privatemusings/Wikipedia)

A yearlong controversy in South Africa surrounding the labeling of Israeli products from the West Bank appeared to have been resolved last week, with the government in Pretoria agreeing to soften the language of said labels, accepting a compromise proposed by the local Jewish community.

While South African retailers will still be obligated to mark goods imported from beyond the Green Line, the labels will no longer mention the words “occupied” or “Palestinian.” Instead of having to label the goods as coming from the “Occupied Palestinian Territory,” merchants will now be asked to write on the labels “West Bank: Israeli goods” or “East Jerusalem: Israeli goods.”

But while the South African Jewish community hailed the decision as an “amazing” victory, the Israeli government said Sunday that it opposes the arrangement, and remains steadfast in its position that any kind of labeling of West Bank goods is discriminatory and immoral.

The South African cabinet decided that, “in the matter of the Israel/Palestine country of origin labeling, Cabinet have given their concurrence on the usage of, ‘Gaza: Israeli goods,’ East Jerusalem: Israeli goods, and West Bank: Israeli goods,” according to a letter issued last week by South African Trade and Industry Ministry Chief of Staff Mossa Ebrahim. (Since the 2005 Israeli disengagement from Gaza, there are no Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, which renders the first label superfluous.)

Last May, at the behest of a pro-Palestinian organization called Open Shuhada Street, South African Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies said he intended to issue an official notice “to require traders in South Africa not to incorrectly label products that originate from the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) as products of Israel.” At the time, Davies said that Pretoria recognized the State of Israel “only within the borders demarcated by the United Nations (UN) in 1948” and that these borders do not include territories occupied by Israel after 1967.

Despite fierce criticism from the Israeli Foreign Ministry and local Jewish groups, the South African cabinet in August approved the plan. The Jewish community kept on arguing its case and proposing an alternative wording for the labels; senior communal leaders met with several senior officials, including Davis, on December 11. On April 9, his ministry announced that the compromise proposal had been accepted.

“This is an amazing outcome,” read a joint statement by the heads of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) and the local Zionist Federation (SAZF).

The new measure “fully complies with internationally recognised technical trade requirements pertaining to place of origin,” the statement continued. “Unlike earlier versions of the legislation, it does not make use of politically charged and biased language, but rather used terms that are essentially neutral and descriptive.”

The two chairmen — SAJBD’s Mary Kluk and SAZF’s Avrom Krengel — called the compromise solution balanced and sensible, hailing it as a plan that “addresses the requirement that the places of origin of imported products be accurately identified without the addition of divisive, politically motivated aspects that can only cause division and alienation within the South African population.”

The spokesman of the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, however, said he saw no cause for celebration. “Labeling as such is discriminatory, no matter in which way it is done, and there is no cause for rejoicing in the face of clear discrimination.”

The requirement to label products from the West Bank and Jerusalem — territories Israel captured in 1967 and that the international community does not recognize as Israeli territory — is inherently discriminatory because it singles out Israel, Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said. The South Africans “don’t do labeling for any other territories that might be just as controversial; they are not concerned about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because there are other conflicts that don’t get half the concern. They’re singling out Israel and Israel only,” he said.

The “absurdity” of the Pretoria government’s new labeling policy is all the more patent because the ministry’s plan includes a label for Israeli goods from Gaza. “I’m waiting impatiently for the South African authorities to show me the first product labeled in such a way,” he quipped.

Palmor acknowledged that the minister’s original plan would have been much worse from Israel’s perspective, but noted that he cannot “praise someone for doing something a little less silly or stupid or discriminatory than what it could have been.”

Israel was also adamantly opposed to any imposition of special labels for West Bank products because it would “immediately and automatically” lead to calls for a boycott of all Israeli goods. As a case in point, Palmor quoted from a press release from the South African branch of the Boycott, Divestement and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which took Pretoria’s decision as an occasion to call on the government “to now initiate a complete ban on Israeli settlement goods and companies.”

Supporters of a boycott against Israel protest in Melbourne, Australia, in 2010. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Supporters of a boycott against Israel in Australia, in 2010. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The BDS press release further states that products currently carried by South African stores that bear “Made in Israel” labels violate the new regulations, so that “consumers can now demand that these Israeli settlement products are removed from shelves in line with the Consumer Protection Act.”

The BDS movement declared that it considers the wording of the new labeling system too unclear and announced it will meet with ministry officials “to strengthen the wording of these special labels.”

Calls to label West Bank products are gaining momentum in Europe as well. The Netherlands last month recommended that retailers mark such goods not as “Made in Israel” but as originating from “Israeli settlements,” joining Ireland, Denmark and the UK, which have similar policies. The European Union is expected to issue labeling guidelines as well.

Asked if Jerusalem is interested in proposing that Brussels adopt the language of the South African model, lest the formulation of any future labeling regulation be much harsher, Palmor stated that Israel was unwilling to agree to any compromise on the issue.

“Labeling is discrimination, and discrimination is unacceptable,” he said. “Labeling is tantamount to naming and shaming, and the EU doesn’t do it for other parts of the worlds with controversial territories. Whether the wording is harsh or soft — you can’t reconcile yourself with something that is fundamentally immoral.”

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