Israel & the EU Battle Over Settlement Labelling Guidelines

By Lauren Mellinger (JD/MAIR ’10)

(Re-published from Strife, Dec. 9, 2015) On Nov. 11, 2015 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.

“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.”

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 reviewof 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 …

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INSCT alumna Lauren Mellinger (JD/MAIR ’10) 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