By: Lauren Mellinger
On November 11 the European Commission adopted the ‘Interpretative Notice on indication of origin of goods from the territories occupied by Israel since June 1967.’ The announcement of the new guidelines for labelling products produced in Israeli settlements, which drew immediate condemnation from the Israeli government—notably uniting many lawmakers on both the left and right of the political spectrum—follows a robust multi-year diplomatic effort on the part of the Israeli government to lobby the European Union to bar their implementation. Though the EU is likely to remain Israel’s biggest trading partner, the diplomatic repercussions of this decision represent a greater concern for both Israel and the EU.
The new guidelines, which will be applied to agricultural products and cosmetics, though will exclude pre-packaged food items and industrial products, call for “products of Palestine,” which the EU regards as products not produced in Israeli settlements, to henceforth be labelled as “products from the West Bank (Palestinian product)” or “product of Gaza” or “product of Palestine.” In accordance with the new guidelines, qualifying products produced either in the West Bank, the Golan Heights, or products that originate in the settlements are not prohibited from entering the European market, but must now include the term “Israeli settlement”, as according to the Commission, the “omission of the additional geographic information that the product comes from Israeli settlements would mislead the consumer as to the true origin of the product.”
Last month’s announcement was not a surprise. Indeed, the guidelines had been under discussion for several years, having initially been proposed in 2012. Since then, they were not implemented due to pressure from the United States and Israel in light of the U.S.-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, the Iranian nuclear negotiations, and to avoid the appearance of attempting to influence the Israeli elections last spring. In the interim however, while the EU repeatedly cautioned the Israeli government not to proceed with further actions in the territories that would complicate the prospects for establishing an independent Palestinian state, the peace negotiations collapsed, and Israel’s Housing Ministry continued to make routine announcements regarding construction projects in the settlements. Then last March, as the EU grew increasingly frustrated with the deadlocked peace process, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was elected to his fourth-term and subsequently installed a narrow right-wing coalition, and a cabinet which includes several ministers who are staunchly opposed to a two-state solution. Netanyahu’s election followed a series of statements he made during the campaign which called into question his commitment to working towards a two-state solution. This prompted renewed calls by 16 EU foreign ministers for the implementation of the uniform labelling system, in an effort to apply pressure to Israel by reaffirming a long-standing EU policy of non-recognition of Israeli sovereignty over territories it occupied in June 1967, irrespective of their status under Israeli domestic law.
Israeli condemnation of the new EU guidelines was swift. While the government is currently conducting a review of the guidelines to determine its response, Netanyahu and other lawmakers have accused the EU of hypocrisy and have even alleged anti-Semitism, going so far as to draw comparisons between the new guidelines and the policies that distinguished between Jewish and non-Jewish products implemented in the days of Nazi-occupied Europe.
Immediately following the EU’s announcement, Israel’s Foreign Ministry released a statement claiming that the decision is indicative of Europe’s “double standard”—singling out Israel for treatment while refraining from implementing similar labelling schemes for a host of other territorial disputes, and expressing disappointment in the measure, claiming such steps actually harden negotiating positions and hinder the parties’ ability to broker an accord—a sentiment echoed by both left and right-wing Israeli politicians in the weeks preceding and following the announcement. Though an unfortunate coincidence, the fact that the adoption of the new guidelines was announced the same week that the UN marked the 40th anniversary of the adoption of General Assembly Resolution 3379 declaring “Zionism as a form of racism” did little to assuage Israeli concerns as to their growing isolation in the international community.
While the economic impact of the new guidelines is expected to be minimal (with the notable exception of the Palestinians, who stand to lose the most from the implementation the new labelling scheme), the EU’s decision to adopt the guidelines has stoked Israeli fears that European governments are falling under the influence of the international Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS), which is seen in Israel as largely anti-Semitic and anti-Israel, rather than as a movement genuinely committed to working towards the establishment of a two-state solution.
Members of the EU have vehemently rejected allegations by the Israeli government that the decision was motivated by anti-Semitism, as well as Israeli claims that the new guidelines are tantamount to a boycott. In the explanatory notes accompanying the decision, the Commission noted that “it does not support any form of boycott or sanctions against Israel. Nor does the EU intend to impose any boycott on Israeli exports from the settlements.” The EU maintains that the adoption of the new labelling scheme was not a political decision, but rather a technical measure to clarify and implement uniform standards, as in recent years, three member states—Great Britain, Belgium and Denmark—have already imposed their own versions of labelling guidelines. Yet, Israeli leaders are concerned that the guidelines may serve as a precursor to future legislation, which could negatively impact the Israeli economy and further isolate them.
Israeli concerns about the economic ramifications of a boycott are not without merit. A 2013 report by economists from Israel’s Finance Ministry analysing several different boycott scenarios found that a full-scale EU boycott of all products produced in the West Bank would harm Israel’s economy. However, what should merit greater consideration from the Israeli government is the attitude of the European public, where negative views of Israel are increasing, including within the European Jewish community. While the Conference of European Rabbis came out against the new guidelines, a recent survey of British Jews for instance, found that only 37% of those under the age of 30 felt that there was “no justification” for the Commission to establish a distinct labelling scheme for products from Israeli settlements. (The UK led the way for European countries to impose voluntary guidelines on labelling Israeli settlement products, having instituted a version of the labelling scheme in 2009, though what effect if any those guidelines had on attitudes towards Israel was not reflected in the survey). What should be more concerning to the Israeli government is that the same survey revealed that 24% of British Jews would support “some form of sanctions against Israel” if such measures would encourage the Israeli government to act.
Yet, the EU’s new guidelines for labelling Israeli settlement products will likely not qualify as such a measure. The weeks leading up to the Commission’s announcement already showcased what has become the predictable, albeit counterproductive, response of right-wing members of the Israeli government, such as ramping up claims of European anti-Semitism, calls to boycott European products sold in Israel, and efforts to steer controversial legislation through the Knesset—including new proposals related to boycotts as well as foreign funding of non-governmental organizations. Following the adoption of the guidelines, some in Israel have even called for filing a lawsuit with the World Trade Organization contesting the EU’s decision. Unfortunately what has been largely absent from the Israeli government’s response thus far has been any effort to address the concerns of the EU foreign ministers with respect to Israel’s policies vis-à-vis the occupied territories. To be clear, European anti-Semitism did not end in May 1945, and European Jewish communities have experienced a notable increase in anti-Semitic sentiment and activities in recent years. But the most effective way for the Israeli government to assist European Jews in combatting the scourge of anti-Semitism is not by conflating it with all expressions of frustration with Israeli intransigence.
In this respect, the adoption of the guidelines last month represents a significant failure of Israeli diplomacy. The decision to impose uniform EU-wide guidelines that go beyond merely indicating the geographical origin of a product to requiring a specific notation that the product is made in an Israeli settlement follows a multi-year effort by the Israeli government to lobby the EU against taking this step. However, while the BDS movement certainly has made inroads with the European public in recent years, the peace process remains frozen, and once again Israelis and Palestinians find themselves caught up in another wave of violence. In lieu of expending considerable efforts campaigning to deter the EU from implementing this measure, Israeli interests would have been better served putting forth an Israeli initiative, or at a minimum, taking steps that would indicate a clear signal to the EU and the international community that the government of Israel was sincere in its efforts—in both rhetoric and deed—to work towards a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians. Doing so may have removed the incentive for the EU to adopt these guidelines and would have provided considerable leverage to European governments to push back on those who continue to lobby for a boycott of Israel. Standing firm against the BDS movement would also give the EU a clearer path to playing a constructive role in the Middle East peace process, something that EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini expressed as one of her top priorities upon taking over the post from Catherine Ashton last year. Yet as it stands, following last month’s decision, the EU has added itself to a long list of international organizations that have lost credibility with the Israelis, evidenced by the Israeli government’s announcement last week that “as a consequence of labelling” it was suspending cooperation with the EU on the peace process, pending a “reassessment” of the EU’s role.
Lauren Mellinger is a doctoral candidate in War Studies at King’s College London and a senior editor of Strife’s blog and journal. Her research specializes in Israeli counterterrorism and foreign policy, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You can follow her on Twitter @Lauren_M04