LONDON - British chain stores try to provide their shoppers with the maximum details about the source of the food products they consume. The goal is to allow consumers to base their decisions on considerations of freshness, environment, local patriotism, politics and other values. And so, as an Israeli who isn't used to examining the source of his meal, I was surprised a few weeks ago to discover that the sage leaves I bought here came from a country called "West Bank," where they were grown by a farmer named "Yedidya."
This is no freak occurrence. The British government has recently instructed importers to be more meticulous about checking products that come from Israel, in case they were produced in the territories. This step shouldn't surprise anyone. The fact that a large part of the agricultural produce grown in settlements undergoes laundering by offices and marketing companies operating within the Green Line is well known, and in the wake of pressure from consumer groups, among other things, the British authorities have decided to stop turning a blind eye. They are now seeking meticulous adherence to procedures set down in a trade agreement between Israel and the European Union that obligates exporters to note the source of the merchandise.
What is unusual about this is that the instructions didn't come from some mid-level customs official, but from 10 Downing Street. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is taking steps that will allow the chain stores and consumer groups to work together with the government in supervising merchandise from Israel, and if that's not enough, the British have even distributed to all members of the EU a document calling on them to take action on the matter as well. The document leaves no room for doubt as to the reason for this action: The Israelis haven't frozen settlement construction - and the European Union must consider how to make them do so.
Among all the world's leaders, it's hard to find those who have been friends as true to Israel as Gordon Brown. Israeli diplomats and Jewish community leaders in London have difficulty hiding their smiles when Brown describes for the 20th time how his father, a Zionist Scottish priest, sat down the entire family to make them watch the home movies he had taken on his visit to a young State of Israel. Brown is a big believer in economic development as a stimulus for peace, and to this day most of his diplomatic activity in the Mideast is directed toward the economic arena. If he has decided to encourage the marking of merchandise from the territories, we can't treat it as yet another provocation by the anti-Israeli lobby in Europe.
Israel's response is harder to understand. What is motivating Israel to endanger the preferential trade agreement with the European Union, which was reached after extensive effort?
The truth is that this isn't an ideological issue. The Israeli government is primarily protecting the companies that export agricultural produce. It is they that have been providing fraudulent information about the source of their merchandise, since produce from the settlements isn't eligible for reduced tariffs in EU states. The government and the exporters believed, for some reason, that no one would make a big deal about this, and now a combination of Israeli greed and Israeli arrogance is endangering ties with Europe.
In the meantime, instead of apologizing and promising to get strict with the exporters, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni - and, on her orders, Israel's diplomatic representatives - are insisting on leaving the situation as it stands. They are refusing to cooperate with the process of identifying goods from the settlements, saying it will lead to all Israeli products being marked and provide ammuntion to those who want to boycott Israel.
But this policy actually leads to the opposite of the desired result. If the government does not assist in the precise identification of the source of goods exported from Israel, every Israeli product is liable to be tainted with the settlements' mark of Cain. And if Livni thinks that Europe will leave Israel alone on the identification of goods just to help her get elected prime minister, she is liable to learn that that's an illusion that will cost Israel dearly.
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