EU to label products exported from Israeli settlements

Josef Federman
Associated Press

Jerusalem — Israel would be required to label products that are made in West Bank settlements and exported to Europe, according to guidelines being prepared by the European Union.

The move is the latest sign of international discontent with Israeli construction of settlements on occupied lands claimed by the Palestinians, as well as frustration over the bleak state of Mideast peace efforts.

It also comes as a grassroots movement promoting boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel appears to be gaining steam.

Israeli officials reject the European labeling plan, saying it would amount to a type of boycott and help discourage Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas from returning to negotiations.

“Why should he talk? He can get by without talking. He can get by with an international community that blames Israel for not having talks,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Herzliya Conference, an annual gathering of the country’s political and security elite.

An EU official said Tuesday that the 28-nation bloc’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, told European foreign ministers May 18 that work is underway and that a set of guidelines will be “finalized in the near future.”

The Palestinians claim the West Bank and east Jerusalem — territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war — as parts of a future independent state. The international community opposes Israeli settlements in the two areas, saying they undermine the goal of dividing the land between two countries. More than 550,000 Jewish settlers live on occupied land.

EU opposition to the settlements is not new. A free trade agreement with Israel already excludes settlement goods, even if they say they were made in Israel. Likewise, Israel is barred from spending money it receives under a landmark technology-sharing pact in the West Bank or east Jerusalem. Several European countries have approved voluntary labeling guidelines for settlement products.

The new guidelines would take things further by requiring Israeli exporters to explicitly label products as being made in the settlements — a potential stigma that could deter consumers from buying them. The EU began work on labeling guidelines in 2012, but appears to have decided to revive that effort following the formation of Israel’s new hard-line government.

The EU official said it would likely be months before the guidelines are complete. A second official said much would depend on the policies of the new government. If peace talks with the Palestinians are restarted, the effort could once again be shelved. But if talks remain frozen and Israel steps up settlement construction, the EU will move forward, he said. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss internal EU deliberations with the media.

For now, the odds of Israel and the Palestinians relaunching peace talks appear extremely slim.

Netanyahu’s new government is dominated by pro-settlement hard-liners who oppose the creation of a Palestinian state. Netanyahu himself spoke out against Palestinian independence in the recent election campaign. Although he has backpedaled and called for a resumption of peace talks, the Palestinians and Israel’s Western allies are skeptical in the absence of a firm proposal from him.

Instead, the Palestinians have been moving forward with a campaign against Israel in international organizations like the United Nations and the International Criminal Court. Two weeks ago, Israel fended off a Palestinian attempt to expel Israel from FIFA, the global soccer federation.

At the same time, the grassroots pro-Palestinian boycott movement, known by its initials BDS, appears to be gaining strength. Last week, Britain’s national student union endorsed the BDS movement, while the chief executive of French telecom giant Orange said he wanted to cut business ties with Israel to help gain favor with the Arab world.

Orange CEO Stephane Richard subsequently backtracked, telling France’s BFM television station Monday that his decision was only a business move and he is “radically opposed to all forms of discrimination.”

The station said Richard planned to go to Israel soon to speak to the nation’s leaders. But the uproar in Israel has not subsided.

Politicians across Israel’s political spectrum have blasted the BDS movement.