The EU’s labeling policy

With the appointment in 2001 of Shimon Peres as foreign minister the labeling issue was one of the first the foreign minister had to contend with when he assumed office.

EU flags (photo credit: AFP/ DANIEL ROLAND)
EU flags
(photo credit: AFP/ DANIEL ROLAND)
The decision of the EU to mark the products manufactured beyond the Green Line is not new; it has been a burden for Israeli foreign policy for many years.
With the appointment in 2001 of Shimon Peres as foreign minister in the government of Israel – the 29th national unity government headed by Ariel Sharon – the labeling issue was one of the first the foreign minister had to contend with when he assumed office.
Two pressing issues, which were interrelated, were at the top of his agenda: first, to attempt to influence the decisions of the International Commission headed by former US senator John Mitchell and moderate its conclusions, and second, to address the efforts of the EU to mark the products of the “settlements” (according to the interpretation of the International community, “settlements” included the Golan Heights and east Jerusalem).
Regarding the issue of the Mitchell Commission, Peres decided to start cooperating with the commission and used his close personal acquaintance with its members to further Israel’s interests. The results, indeed, were mostly favorable and led to an opening for negotiations with the Palestinians.
As far as labeling settlement products, a topic that surfaced in each of his meetings with heads of state and his counterpart European foreign ministers, Peres claimed that this initiative would sabotage the chances of reaching an agreement and prevent any possibility for meaningful negotiation between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors.
In his numerous political meetings and in his appearances before the Council of Foreign Ministers of Europe (to which I accompanied him as media adviser to the foreign minister) Peres never played the role of victim, as the current Israeli leaders are playing. Israel’s policy at the time, on the issue of labeling, avoided the accusation of European anti-Semitism and the comparison of marking of the products manufactured in the West Bank to the yellow star of the Nazi era.
The approach that “the world is always against us” was not the basis for Israel’s foreign policy.
Peres argued that the focus must be on Israel’s desire to achieve a settlement with the Palestinians. Peres viewed the policy of marking products as a way to put into practice a unilateral decision of marking borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state. Why should the Palestinians have an interest in negotiations if they get borders marked by the international community with no demand to give anything in return? Peace is built on consensus rather than coercion. The term “imposed peace” is a contradiction and, in fact, does not exist in the international lexicon.
Moreover, it was claimed at the time that the government of Israel (headed by Sharon with Peres as deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs) was holding talks with the Palestinians to establish a “cooling off period” (yes, even though there were continued terrorist attacks and Israeli responses), advocating a return to the negotiating table in order to achieve an agreement. Peres viewed any unilateral decision as alienating the sides from the negotiating table.
Using these arguments that marking products would damage the chance to renew the negotiations, we were able, with the support of the United States, and despite the American position that settlements are illegal (even expansion in Jerusalem and the Golan Heights), to stop, or at least to delay, the attempts to mark the settlements products.
Thus, the joint efforts of Israel and US succeeded in postponing the EU decision at that time.
There is no doubt that if we now return to the negotiating table, improve relations with the US administration, and maybe if we appoint a foreign minister who is suited to his duties (as a full-time job), we may improve Israel’s international standing.
The writer served as senior special adviser to foreign minister Shimon Peres in 2001-2002.