The European Parliament expressed its support Thursday for putting special labels on consumer goods produced in West Bank, East Jerusalem and Golan Heights settlements, as well as for “differentiating” between the EU's attitude toward Israel and to the settlements. Five hundred and twenty-five EU parliamentarians voted for the motion, which dealt with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, 70 voted against and 31 abstained.
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The motion stated that the European Parliament: “Welcomes the EU’s commitment – in the spirit of differentiation between Israel and its activities in the occupied Palestinian Territory – to ensuring that all agreements between the EU and Israel must unequivocally and explicitly indicate their inapplicability to the territories occupied by Israel in 1967, takes note of the letter sent to the VP/HR by 16 EU Foreign Ministers on 13 April 2015, encouraging her to take the lead within the Commission with a view to completing the work on EU-wide guidelines on the labelling of Israeli settlement produce.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blasted the expression of support. "The European Parliament decision is unjustified, it is just a perversion of justice and a distortion of reason, and I think that it also harms peace, it doesn't advance it," he said. "The roots of the conflict are not territories and the roots of the conflict are not the settlements. We already have a historical memory as to what happened when Europe marked products of Jews."
The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem responded angrily to the motion, especially the parts dealing with the settlements. The reason, according to senior officials in the ministry, is that this is the first time the EU supported a “differentiation” between Israel and the settlements and mentions the need to label products from the settlements. “The problem with this clause is the erosion and the change in the rhetoric in Europe with regard to the settlements,” a senior Foreign Ministry official said.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said that the EU motion was “discriminatory with a sharp smell of boycott,” and added that “under the guise of a technical step, this is an attempt to force a diplomatic solution instead of encouraging the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table. Europe is acting with hypocritical sanctimoniousness toward Israel when it does not consider proposing similar solutions to northern Cyprus or Western Sahara.”
The EU decision comes at a time in which discussions in the European Commission – the EU’s executive body – on the matter of labeling products from West Bank settlements are in the home stretch. The EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said herself at a press conference on Saturday that work on this matter was very close to completion.
A senior Foreign Ministry official in Jerusalem said that various European diplomats have conveyed messages to Israel over the past few weeks that the publication of directives for marking products from settlements would be renewed in October. The EU decision is expected to give significant political backing to Mogherini on labeling the products and increase pressure by the 16 countries who believe the matter should be advanced.
Earlier this week the secretary general of the European External Action Service, Helga Schmid, visited Jerusalem and discussed the labeling directives with her Israeli counterparts. A senior official in the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem said discussion turned into a pointed argument.
Foreign Ministry officials said that the labeling directives are the first step on a slippery slope that could lead to a boycott of products from the settlements and on all Israeli products in general. The European representatives said that these were not sanctions or a boycott on Israel but only a technical step to apply EU legislation with regard to consumer protection.
“When we told then this was a boycott they blew up and really lost their minds,” a senior Foreign Ministry official in Jerusalem said. “We told them that labeling products from the settlements is like a door, that once opened, cannot be closed. We made clear to them that we did not see this as a technical step, but as a political step against Israel in every sense.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and senior Foreign Ministry officials are making major efforts to delay the publication of the directives. Netanyahu raised the subject in meetings with EU President Donald Tusk, with the Lithuanian prime minister and with the prime minister of Luxembourg, Jean Asselborn, who visited Jerusalem over the past week.
The issue also came up in a meeting between Netanyahu and British Prime Minister David Cameron Thursday in London. At the beginning of the meeting Netanyahu reiterated the message that he stated frequently in recent weeks as part of his attempts to block moves against the settlements. “I want to say here in 10 Downing Street, and reaffirm again that I am ready to resume direct negotiations with the Palestinians with no conditions whatsoever to enter negotiations, and I'm willing to do so immediately," Netanyahu said.
Mattia Toaldo, a Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Haaretz that "this is the first time in my memory that one of the 3 top EU institutions uses the word 'differentiation' for this policy. This clarifies the distinction with boycotts and makes it more acceptable for a number of European governments. On the one hand, this is gradually becoming an automatic policy that is implemented to bring bureaucracy in line with EU laws and international law. On the other hand, some politicians still see it as an alternative to the peace process, and this could block it in the future given that Mogherini now has the imperative to restart talks."