Don't turn a label into libel

South African government's move to demand labeling should come as no surprise.

label libel cartoon 521 (photo credit: AVI KATZ)
label libel cartoon 521
(photo credit: AVI KATZ)
The South African notice of intention to demand accurate labeling of goods produced in the occupied territories shouldn’t have surprised anyone.
As spelled out in the body of Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies’ text, the Pretoria government does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over the territories east of the 1967 “Green Line,” and therefore, from its point of view, labeling products from the West Bank as “Made in Israel” runs counter to its support for the two-state solution.
The reactions of the Israeli government and the settler leaders were, to say the least, obtuse. First, the Foreign Ministry put out a statement saying that it was inconceivable that a country that had been discriminated against on racist grounds would discriminate against another on that basis. But the discrimination against South Africa was during the apartheid era because of its then-racist policies; surely the last thing Israel should do, even by implication, is compare itself to an apartheid state. Then settler spokesman Danny Dayan denounced Davies’s motives as stemming from Jewish self-hatred.
His comment was not really meant as a specific diagnosis of the South African minister’s psychological state, but more as a blanket insinuation that any future critics of the settler enterprise who happen to be Jewish can only be self-hating members of the faith and easily dismissed ad hominem as such.
The South African government is clearly biased in favor of the Palestinians and makes no attempt to conceal the fact. All its members actively fought apartheid and tended to support what they saw as other freedom movements. Some of them served long prison terms, others, Davies among them, spent years in exile. Both groups developed particularly close ties with the PLO leadership under Yasser Arafat.
After the first democratic election in South Africa in April 1994, the Nelson Mandela government and it successors felt a profound moral duty to support the Palestinians in their struggle for freedom.
On the other hand, Israel was seen as one of the few countries to engage in wide-ranging economic, security and diplomatic cooperation with the apartheid regime. South Africa is not ready to forget that.
However, given the complexity of its global interests, the new “rainbow nation” South Africa combined its unwavering solidarity with the Palestinians with recognition of the importance of viable political and economic relations with Israel. Against this background, it developed a two-pronged policy: support for two states for two peoples, while wielding its clout in international forums in Africa or the UN in support of the Palestinians. The labeling plans are consistent with both elements of this South African policy.
Compared to their overall trade figures, the volume of trade between Israel and South Africa is relatively small. The importance of this traffic for Israeli exports is that Pretoria’s economy is about half the size of Africa’s as a whole and serves as a gateway to trade with the rest of the rapidly developing continent. True, the import of South African coal is declining as Israel turns to gas-fueled power stations; on the other hand, export of Israeli technology to South Africa is on the increase.
The importance of the South African labeling move is not so much in itself, but more in the precedent it might set – not only for goods produced in the West Bank, but for trade with Israel in general.
Therefore the government should be very careful in its responses. Most importantly, it should avoid exaggerated rhetoric. Not every label is a libel.