EU Plans to Label Goods from Israel’s Occupied Territories

Gerald M. Steinberg, professor of political science at Bar Ilan University and president of NGO Monitor, a group which reports on anti-Israeli NGOs and the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) movement world-wide, has published an editorial in the Times of Israel on EU plans to require special labels on “colonial goods” produced in the occupied territories for import to the EU under the EU-Israel Association Agreement signed in 1995 granting preferential customs rates.

The op/ed came in response to an interview with EU ambassador to Israel Lars Faaborg-Andersen in the same newspaper in early October in which he said he failed to understand why Jerusalem was making such a “big fuss” about the EU’s plan to label Israeli products from the West Bank.

Steinberg said: “If nothing else, European officials at least get credit for consistency. For decades, in war and peace, terror and calm, they have not flagged in the belief that they can engineer their vision of peace for Israel. Having failed in so many previous attempts, the European move is another step in the effort to impose its preferred policies, via the labeling of products from the post-1967 ‘occupied territories’ in order to create economic pressure on Israel.”

A report by Reuters from mid-July bolsters Steinberg’s claims, saying “the European Council on Foreign Relations, which frequently informs EU policy” had gone much further, “including the targeting of Israeli banks.” The article outlined further measures against Israel, including non-recognition of academic, medical and other Israeli institutions based in the West Bank, and breaking off contacts and cooperation between Israeli and EU government institutions. “Likewise, there is a question mark over whether the EU should be dealing with Israeli institutions such as the Ministry of Justice, the building ministry and the national police headquarters which are based in East Jerusalem,” the Reuters report said.

“The marking of products from beyond the 1949 armistice lines goes far beyond another awkward EU attempt to impose its ideas on Israeli democracy. Product labeling is the embodiment of a strategy to delegitimize Israel and the right of the Jewish people to sovereign equality. It is central to the political war embodied in BDS—boycott, divestment and sanctions—whose stated objective is not peace, but rather ‘the complete international isolation of Israel’,” Steinberg wrote.

“In other words, while invoking the rhetoric of peace, the EU and its spokesperson in Israel, ambassador Faaborg-Andersen, continue to promote policies and organizations that reinforce the conflict. Product labeling, which promotes boycotts and other actions that single-out and demonize Israel, is the façade for this process. In the midst of another wave of brutal terror, this is certainly not the time for European political posturing. Taking at face value its claims to support the right of the Jewish people to sovereign equality, and to oppose anti-Semitism, the European Union is well advised to drop product labeling. At the same time, a full and independent investigation of their relationships with fringe groups that fuel the conflict is long overdue,” professor Steinberg concluded.

In September the International Business Times reported on the angry reaction by Israeli leaders to a non-binding resolution passed by the European Parliament in favor of the labeling scheme:

“Israeli leaders reacted angrily to a European Union vote held Thursday that called for products made in Jewish settlements in occupied territories to be labeled, with prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu invoking the Holocaust in his criticism of the move. The European Parliament overwhelmingly passed the measure 525-70 with 31 abstentions. It calls for goods sold in Europe to be labeled as products of settlements if manufactured in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem, or the Golan Heights.

“The motion said the labeling of Israeli settlement products in the EU market, ‘in the spirit of differentiation between Israel and its activities in the Occupied Palestinian territories,’ would ‘ensure that all agreements between the EU and Israel unequivocally and explicitly indicate their inapplicability to the territories occupied by Israel in 1967.’

“In a statement Thursday, Netanyahu branded the vote unjust. ‘It is simply a distortion of justice and of logic and I think that it also hurts peace. It does not advance peace,’ he said in a statement cited by the Times of Israel. ‘The root of the conflict is not the territories, and the root of the conflict is not the settlements. We have historical memory of what happened when Europe labeled Jewish products,’ he added, in a reference to the Nazi practice of making Jews wear identifying stars on their clothing.

“Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon told reporters that the EU motion was ‘discriminatory, with a sharp smell of boycott.’

“The move comes amid increasing tensions on the settlement issue between the EU and Israel. Earlier this week, Helga Schmid, secretary general of the European External Action Service, visited Jerusalem and discussed the labeling directives with her Israeli counterparts. A senior official in the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem said the discussion turned into a pointed argument, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported.”

The Times of Israel in early October reported Netanyahu raised the issue with EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini during a meeting in New York, saying of the labeling scheme: “For many Israelis this recalls dark days in Europe” and that “it hardens Israeli domestic opinion,” according to a statement released by the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office.

In the same article Raphael Ahren, the diplomatic correspondent for the Times of Israel, wrote: “While acknowledging that there is a political aspect to the labeling initiative—admitting that it’s not, as EU officials sometimes argue, exclusively a matter of consumer protection—Faaborg-Andersen denied that it was designed to pressure Israel into concessions. After all, goods from the settlements [account] for less than one percent of Israeli exports [to] the EU.”

Professor Steinberg’s full editorial here.