World support for EU action on Israel's products

Drew Christiansen

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Ra'fat Al-Dajani

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The horrific terror attacks in Paris last week completely overshadowed a significant story earlier in the week, the European Union’s issuing of new guidelines for the labeling of products from illegal Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT).

The EU's decision to start labeling Israeli products made in the West Bank brought a resounding show of international disapproval over Israel's continuing illegal expansion of settlements in the occupied territories.

Henceforth, Israeli goods from these areas must carry the word "settlement" on the tag when sold in European shops. If an Israeli producer refuses, retail outlets can attach the labels themselves.

There is already precedent in Europe for labeling goods emanating from settlements in the OPT. Since 2004, Britain, Belgium and Denmark have been labeling goods that originate from the OPT differently than those originating from Israel proper. The new policy makes the labeling uniform across all 28 countries of the EU.

The issuing of the labeling guidelines had come in the teeth of fierce opposition by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had made a personal appeal to a number of key European figures in the run-up to the decision, in which he said the plan was discriminatory, indicative of double standards, and would embolden those who seek to "eliminate" Israel.

Lars Faaborg-Andersen, the EU ambassador to Israel, responded by reminding the Israeli government that all 28 member nations of the EU do not recognize as Israeli territory the Palestinian lands occupied by Israeli since 1967, including Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem. "This is something that also happens to be the view of 99 percent of the international community," he said.

The international community opposes settlement construction in the OPT, saying their continued growth undermines the very idea of establishing an independent and viable Palestine alongside Israel. Today, nearly 600,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, almost 10 percent of the Israel's Jewish population.

The United States was quick to offer support for Europe's position. "We do not believe that labeling the origin of products is equivalent to a boycott," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. "And as you know, we do not consider settlements to be part of Israel," rather that the U.S. views them as "illegitimate and are harmful to prospects for peace and for Israel’s long-term security."

Among Israelis themselves, not everyone has opposed the labeling. A petition signed by more than 550 prominent Israeli figures, including former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg, former ambassadors, and respected Israeli academics expressed support for the measures.

The petition said that the European differentiation between Israel and the settlements is a "step that could help promote a peace agreement, and it will also strengthen Israel's overall status in the world and will undermine attempts to delegitimize it." The petition added: "This kind of distinction can also serve to reduce the current levels of tension, fear and despair, among both Israelis and Palestinians."

Alon Liel, a former Israeli diplomat who supports the European labeling policy as "a dramatic move," countered one of the arguments used by the Netanyahu government against the labeling, namely that it would hurt Palestinians who worked on the settlements. "We remember this from the South African days, the whites said that the first ones to be fired are the blacks," he said. "But Mandela said that we want to achieve bigger things."

In the United States, the Jewish-American group Peace Now also expressed its support, saying it views the labeling guidelines as "a means to oppose the occupation and, thereby, support Israel."

"Peace Now has always considered the settlement enterprise as the main obstacle to a two-state solution, and, like the settlers themselves, views Israeli factories and economic institutions within the West Bank as a political statement," the group said in a statement. “A more accurate labeling system ... will allow European residents to make purchases according to ideological considerations. Further, this system will help curb efforts to boycott Israel entirely, such as those advocated by the BDS movement" (Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions).

Although the economic impact of the labeling guidelines is likely to be minimal since settlement products account for less than 2 percent of Israel's $14 billion exports to Europe each year, the labeling has a strong symbolic meaning: it singles out products from settlements.

It is this symbolic gesture that has caused alarm in Israel, with the main fear of the Israeli establishment being of a snowball effect, i.e., sanctions that begin with targeting only products from settlements would assume a life of their own and end up targeting all Israeli-produced products.

The Israeli center-left establishment, as represented by the Labor Party, has also come out against the labeling. The EU announcement "takes me back 40 years," Labor leader Isaac Herzog said. He added that labeling products from settlements will be seen by many as a "first step to ending the Zionist enterprise."

This wild claim is likely rooted in the Labor Party's reading of the political tea leaves in the Israeli establishment, namely a veering to the hardline right. If Labor has any hope of returning to power in Israel, it cannot be seen as "weak" by the Israeli electorate.

The Israeli ruling establishment continues to show strategic shortsightedness when it comes to countering the increasing isolation of Israel internationally.

Equating as "a threat to Israel's very existence" every step taken to emphasize the international community's view that settlements are illegal has two key implications.

First, by refusing to admit that the Palestinian Territories are "occupied" and that settlements are directly contradictory to reaching a political settlement, Israel reveals that under Likud (the center-right political party of Netanyahu) at least, it has absolutely no intention of ever withdrawing from the occupied territories or allowing the establishment of a viable and truly independent Palestinian state.

Second, crying "anti-Semitic" and "boycott" wolf every time Israel is criticized diminishes the significance of real anti-Semitism, dilutes outrage when true anti-Semitism occurs and strengthens the sanctions and divestment movement.

The efforts of those whose goal is to isolate Israel or make it a pariah state would never have had the slightest chance of being successful without Israeli settlement building in the Palestinian Territories.

[Drew Christiansen, S.J., is Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Global Development at Georgetown University; Ra'fat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American businessman and political commentator.]

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