The World from Here: Impartial EU labeling would inspire Israeli trust

If the EU is to be a fair and credible interlocutor as part of the Middeast Quartet, it needs to regain Israeli trust by adopting a fair and impartial approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

December 22, 2015 21:27
Shiloh Wineries

A WORKER places stickers on wine bottles while packaging them for export at Shiloh Wineries, north of Ramallah. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Israel’s protests have failed to dampen the European Union’s commitment to label products from Judea and Samaria/the West Bank as a “technical” requirement. According to EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini the move is disconnected from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Instead, Mogherini insists that the EU labeling commitment fits with its policy of “engagement” on the peace process and dedication to strong bilateral relations with Israel.

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Israel, for its part, has lost trust in the EU. Unprecedented Israeli condemnations of EU policy targeting products emanating from post ‘67 territories have encompassed both government and opposition leaders.

If the EU is to be a fair and credible interlocutor as part of the Middle East Quartet, the EU needs to regain Israeli trust by adopting a fair and impartial approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in general and to Israel specifically. The EU should take an important step in that direction by labeling products impartially, reflecting the claims of both sides over the disputed territory of Judea and Samaria/ the West Bank.

As Israel’s friends know and foreign diplomats posted in Israel experience, Israelis argue loudly and publicly about everything from gas reserves and affordable housing to Putin and the Palestinians. It’s a sign of hyper-democracy with high blood pressure. That’s why the broad condemnation by both the Israeli government and Knesset opposition of the EU’s decision to label Israeli products produced beyond the June 4, 1967, line need be taken seriously by EU officials.

If indeed Israel is to accept the EU’s position is that its labeling requirements are purely technical as Mogherini reiterated at EU headquarters on December 14, declaring, “The EU is united on these technical guidelines on the indication of origin, which is in no way a boycott,” the EU must consider Israel’s rights and requirements in the dispute over Jerusalem and territories east of the 1949 armistices lines.

The current EU labeling protocols fail the impartiality test. They neglect to recognize any Israeli rights in the disputed former West Bank of Jordan, which all Israelis recognize by the historical name “Judea and Samaria.”

Most EU diplomats overlook the fact that the overwhelming majority of Israelis support Israel’s legal, national, historical and security rights in Jerusalem, Judea Samaria/the West Bank and the Golan Heights.

Most Israelis recognize that these territories have constituted the heart and soul of three Jewish sovereign entities over the past 3,000 years. Today, these territories also constitute an essential natural barrier against possible Islamic State, Hamas and Islamic Jihad attacks on Israel’s strategic interior from the hills overlooking Ben-Gurion Airport. In short these lands ensure that Israel’s narrow borders are defensible. That is why the overwhelming majority of Israelis support Israeli communities in parts of Judea and Samaria/the West Bank, particularly in the major settlement blocs, as part of an historical compromise with Palestinian neighbors.

The current talks between Israel and European counterparts would suggest that the EU’s constructive declarations should be taken at face value. However they also require modifications to current EU labeling guidelines which are inaccurate and partial to Palestinian demands.

For example, the European Commission’s November 2015 “Final Interpretative Notice on Origin of Goods from the Territories Occupied by Israel since June 1967” reads as follows: “For products from Palestine that do not emanate from settlements an indication that does do not mislead about the geographical origin...

could be [labeled – D.D.] product from the West Bank, product from Gaza, or Product from Palestine.”

However, for Israeli products produced in Judea and Samaria/the West Bank, EU guidelines require that “the expression Israeli Settlement or equivalent needs to be added in brackets.”

The EU’s use of “Palestine” to describe Palestinian products versus its demand from Israel to refer to “Israeli settlements” is inaccurate and discriminatory.

EU diplomats are no stranger to the fact that “Palestine” has no international legal status. It was never a state and it does not lend itself to Palestinian sovereign claims over Jewish sovereign claims as “Judea and Samaria.” Labeling these areas “Palestine” as an origin of Palestinian goods prejudges the outcome of direct negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel which the EU had sanctioned as witness guarantors in 1995.

In 1949 and then again in November 1967 with the passage of UNSC Resolution 242, the United Nations, and in 1995 the EU, have recognized Israel as a claimant to these territories east of the 1949 armistice lines (post-June 4, 1967 lines) which since 1993 have been subject to direct good-faith negotiation between the parties.

The disputed status of Judea and Samaria/the West Bank was agreed upon between the PLO and Israel in the 1993 Oslo Exchange of Letters that was based on “Mutual recognition” of each other’s “mutual legitimate and political rights” (Preamble, Oslo I and Oslo II). This exchange of letters was then legally formalized in the 1995 Interim Accords that the EU affirmed as a witness together with the king of Jordan, the presidents of the US and Egypt, the foreign ministers of the Russian Federation and Norway, and endorsed by the UN.

The EU labeling guidelines do not reflect this internationally legally sanctioned symmetry of rights and claims. By forcing a distinction between Palestinian products labeled as emanating from the “West Bank or Palestine” and Israeli products emanating from “Israeli settlements,” the EU is granting a legal and moral status to the Palestinian Authority that it in fact does not have, and by extension annulling any Israeli rights over land claimed by the nation-state of the Jewish people – what Jews and hundreds of millions of Christians have known historically as Judea and Samaria.

Despite an oversized conflict and a deficit of Israeli trust in European policy, the EU can help close the gap by making small but important adjustments in EU labeling protocols.

Haaretz journalist Anshel Pfeffer suggested in a September 2015 analysis that EU labeling can reflect sensitivity to Israel’s rights, noting, “If every cherry tomato from the Jordan Valley has to have a label, why not use it as a message board which can reach every well-stocked kitchen across Europe? A few well-chosen words, perhaps a good biblical verse on our historical right to the land, or a picture of archaeological evidence of ancient Jewish habitation.”

European Union officials might consider the spirit of Pfeffer’s suggestion. They might also consider the fact that tens of thousands of Palestinians work closely with fellow Israeli employees not in “settlements,” but in 16 industrial zones in Area C of these territories, producing the overwhelming majority of products that are exported to European markets.

That’s why the EU should employ the more neutral and impartial labeling nomenclature, “Produced in the contested areas of Judea and Samaria/The West Bank” for all products emanating from territories east of the 1949 armistice lines. This more impartial language would achieve the currently missing symmetry, and satisfy EU concerns regarding product origins, without prejudicing rights of Palestinians or Israelis.

A rebalancing of labeling language by the EU would help stimulate Israeli trust; that is, among the government, opposition and the public.

The author is a Fellow and project director of Political Warfare at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

He is also a Research Fellow at the Institute for Counter- Terrorism, IDC Herzliya and served as secretary general of the World Jewish Congress.

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