Plead as it might, Israel unlikely to annul EU’s ‘evil’ labeling decree

Jerusalem opposes plan to mark West Bank goods nearly as zealously as it fought Iran deal. This campaign too will fail, but the consequences are less dire

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

Then-economy minister Naftali Bennett (L), during a visit to the West Bank city of Ariel,  June 4, 2013 (Assaf Shilo/Israel Sun/Flash 90)
Then-economy minister Naftali Bennett (L), during a visit to the West Bank city of Ariel, June 4, 2013 (Assaf Shilo/Israel Sun/Flash 90)

What do the Iran deal and the European Union’s plan to label settlement goods have in common?

Very little, actually, notwithstanding the arguably misguided European Parliament assertion, made last week in a resolution passed by a large majority, that the nuclear accord with Tehran “offers a unique momentum for the peace process, which should not be missed.”

But, one thing the Iran deal and the labeling scheme do have in common is the level of determination with which Israeli leaders are willing to fight them, fully aware that their chances to scuttle these measures were and are close to zero.

Just as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must have known that the US Congress would ultimately be unable to halt the Iran deal before he mounted a huge campaign against it, no one in Jerusalem really believes that at this stage they can prevent the EU from introducing labeling, which Brussels hopes will pressure Israel into making concessions.

But that didn’t stop policymakers from issuing a host of condemnatory statements and undiplomatic Holocaust comparisons after last Wednesday’s resolution in the European Parliament, which hailed the “differentiation between Israel and its activities in the occupied Palestinian Territory” and called for the introduction of a labeling regime for settlement goods.

“The labeling of Israeli products will only be a further obstacle to peace,” President Reuven Rivlin told European Council President Donald Tusk last week in Jerusalem. Netanyahu called it unjust and a “distortion of justice and of logic,” invoking Nazi Germany’s boycott on Jewish stores. “We have historical memory of what happened when Europe labeled Jewish products,” he declared.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon attacked the EU’s “sanctimonious hypocrisy,” charging that it uses an ostensibly technical move to impose a political solution on Israelis. The union, he asserted, would never dream of doing something similar in comparable conflicts such as in Northern Cyprus (occupied by Turkey) or Western Sahara (occupied by Morocco).

There is some merit to Nahshon’s argument, but EU officials were nonetheless baffled by it. Be careful what you wish for, they thought, noting that exports from Northern Cyprus into the EU are actually banned. “In contrast, the correct labeling of products from settlements in line with the EU’s existing legislation on labeling of products in general does not constitute a ban or a boycott because … settlement products will continue to flow unimpeded into the EU market,” sources in the EU delegation to Israel said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, MKs Tzipi Hotovely (L) and Zeev Elkin (R ) during a tour of the "Lev HaOlam" organization, in Jerusalem on February 3, 2015. The organization promotes the export and sale of products from Jewish settlements in the West Bank, aiming to fight a boycott of Israeli settlement products. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
PM Netanyahu, MKs Tzipi Hotovely (L) and Zeev Elkin (R ) during a tour of the Lev HaOlam organization, in Jerusalem on February 3, 2015. The organization promotes the export and sale of products from West Bank settlements (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

And yet, Israeli politicians minced no words in denouncing the looming labeling regime. “We must call a spade a spade — the labeling of goods is a boycott,” Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotoveli said last week. She also threatened a full-fledged campaign, including convening an “urgent discussion” with the Foreign Ministry’s European desk about launching “a diplomatic struggle” against the EU’s scheme.

That meeting, scheduled for Thursday, will likely end with declarations about the EU’s hypocrisy and vows not to deterred by anything the EU does. But don’t expect concrete and realistic policy proposals to dissuade the Europeans from proceeding with their plan. They made up their minds.

The EU no longer wants to be a payer but not a player

Officially, the EU opposes boycotts against Israel. It argues that labels for settlement goods are totally in line with its longstanding policy of differentiating between Israel proper and the areas it captured during the 1967 Six Day War — the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and, yes, the Golan Heights, as Yair Lapid lamented in The Times of Israel.

Many EU officials are citing consumer protection laws and the European customer’s right to know that a product was made in an Israeli settlement as opposed to a factory within Israel’s internationally recognized borders. With the introduction of labeling, Brussels is merely implementing existing EU legislation, they argue. But clearly, there is another impetus.

Frustrated by being payers but not players in the Middle East, the Europeans are seeking to finally make their mark on the stalled peace process. And since they have identified Israel as the stronger party, the one obligated to make more of an effort to end the current impasse, they hope introducing a labeling regime could serve as wake-up call to Jerusalem and increase pressure on it to make concessions.

Israeli leaders are well aware of Brussels’s intentions, which explains their passionate reactions.

“The State of Israel will not allow any entity to discriminate between goods produced by Israeli citizens in the territory of the State of Israel,” Hotovely said in her statement last week.

Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely waves the Israeli flag with the Dome of the Rock at her back on May 1, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely in Jerusalem, May 1, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

As she is a staunch advocate of Israel’s settlement enterprise who openly calls on Israel to annex the West Bank, her outrage at the EU’s plan is unsurprising, but her statement contains a blatant inaccuracy. Israel considers the West Bank disputed territory that is not formally part of the state.

But besides the factual error, her statement is astounding in that she makes a pledge she is almost certainly unable to honor. The Europeans decided to label settlement goods a long time ago and have only held off for several reasons, such as the last round of US-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, elections in Israel, and the Iran negotiations. Israel may complain and protest as much as it likes, but labels are going to happen.

Like with the Iran deal, Israeli politicians’ quixotic but vocal campaign against labeling might be geared toward domestic audiences, or serve other purposes. But no one can possibly believe that Jerusalem’s zealous anti-labeling crusade has the power to annul the evil decree, to borrow a phrase from the High Holy Days liturgy.

EU officials have informed their Israeli counterparts that later this month, the European Commission will publish union-wide guidelines about which products should be labeled. Nothing short of a major breakthrough in the peace process will change their minds.

It is noteworthy, however, that the labeling regime will be announced in the form of “an interpretative note,” according to EU sources. It won’t be legally binding and it will not determine what exactly the labels are going to say. That means that each EU member state can decide for itself whether to write, say, “Made by Israeli settlers in Occupied Palestinian Territory” on the labels, or simply “Made in the West Bank.”

And that’s the key difference between the EU’s labeling scheme and the Iran deal. Turning a fanatical regime into a legitimate nuclear threshold power and propping it up with billions of dollars in sanctions relief poses a formidable threat to Israel. Placing labels on less than one percent of the country’s exports to the EU might further encourage the anti-Israel boycott movement, but it is a problem of an entirely different magnitude.

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