EU labelling guidelines revive diplomatic battle
PARIS - Despite Israeli charges that the European Commission guidelines for the mandatory labelling of products originating from Jewish settlements in Palestinian territories occupied in 1967 are “disguised anti-Semitism”, Palestinians are convinced that the Israeli campaign against the move is about the future of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
In this crucial battle, the Palestinians say they have scored a point no matter how symbolic.
“The main thing for us is that the Israeli-Palestinian borders of 1967 have been reaffirmed by the European Union, and this at a time where the Israeli government plans to double in the coming years the number of Israeli settlers on our land,” said Hadi Shebli, a senior Palestinian diplomat based in Brussels.
The European Commission labelling guidelines state very clearly: “The European Union, in line with international law, does not recognise Israel’s sovereignty over the territories occupied by Israel since June 1967, namely the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank — including East Jerusalem — and does not consider them to be part of Israel’s territory irrespective of their status under domestic Israeli law.”
Therefore, the EU document adds: “Since the Golan Heights and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, are not part of the Israeli territory, according to international law, the indication ‘product from Israel’ is considered to be incorrect and misleading.”
For the European Union, products originating in Jewish settlements should clearly carry a label specifying they were made in a settlement.
The political implications of the EU wording in the recently published labelling guidelines have equally not been lost on Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, as shown by his decision to suspend diplomatic contacts with the European Union, making it difficult for the European Union to go on with its efforts to revive the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process based on a two-state solution.
Israeli relations with some EU members have soured as a result of the current fight. Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders postponed a visit to Israel after it was made clear to him that he would not meet Netanyahu, who acts as foreign minister in the current ruling coalition. Similarly, Austrian Vice- Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner cancelled his visit to Israel because the Israeli Science and Technology minister insisted on hosting him in “east Jerusalem, the eternal capital of Israel”.
The Israeli prime minister also condemned, during a cabinet meeting, what he described as scandalous statements made by Sweden’s foreign minister after the latter told the Swedish parliament that Israel was conducting extra-judicial executions of Palestinian stabbing suspects. The Israeli Foreign Ministry had accused the European Union of adopting the labelling guidelines at a time when the country was facing a wave of stabbing attacks.
Shebli said: “Netanyahu is using the EU labelling guidelines to prevent the EU from filling the void left by the Obama administration, which has given up on efforts to revive the peace process in what is its final year in office.”
Israel is resorting to a series of arguments to counter the EU labelling guidelines and is claiming that Palestinian workers employed in Jewish settlements will be the first ones to suffer if they lose their jobs following a drop in sales of Jewish settlements goods in European markets.
If the Israelis are so keen on the well-being of the Palestinian population, counter Palestinian diplomats in Brussels, they should withdraw from areas C and B under the Oslo agreements that make up more than 60% of the occupied West Bank including the Jordan valley and allow us to invest there, which will yield a revenue of $4 billion yearly, according to a World Bank report estimate.
In any case, one month after the European Union published guidelines to its 28 members about how to label goods “from the territories occupied by Israel since June 1967”, nothing has really been done in European markets. Consumers cannot yet tell whether they are buying fruit and vegetables, wine, honey or cosmetics produced in Israel proper or in Jewish settlements. Some countries, such as Germany, Greece or Hungary, are reportedly not enthusiastic about specifying the origin of such products.
“State members cannot refuse to implement EU legislation on the origin of products. It took three years of debate and a request by 16 countries earlier this year for the EU to finally come out with the labelling guidelines,” a Western diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity said. “At best, countries can drag their feet but sooner or later, everybody will have to come round.”
For the time being, the economic impact on Israel of the labelling of goods originating from Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territories will be minimal and won’t affect the $13 billion yearly volume of trade between the European Union and Israel, which benefits from preferential tariffs in European markets.
Yet Palestinians hope the move will snowball into something bigger and lead to the banning of settlement products in European markets. They say settlers are robbing the Palestinian natural resources, such as land and water, and are also the main reason preventing the implementation of the two-state solution.