Israel Considers Suing EU Over Decision to Label Settlement Products

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European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, July 20, 2015. Credit: Reuters

Israel is considering filing a lawsuit with the World Trade Organization over the European Union’s decision to label products in European food markets that originate from the West Bank and other settlements beyond the 1967 lines.

An official said Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked are pushing to sue the European Union, while the foreign and economic officials object.

A few days ago, after the EU guidelines were released, Erdan held a debate about Israel’s possible reactions to the move. He suggested filing a suit against the European Union with the World Trade Organization, claiming that labeling settlement products is a breach of the WTO’s principles, the official said. Shaked supported the move.

An Israeli settler prepares olive oil containers at the Achia Olive press factory in the Jewish settlement of Shilo, West Bank, November 12, 2015. Credit: AFP

A Justice Ministry official said Deputy Attorney General Roy Shondorf believes suing the European Union at the WTO could be beneficial and is worth exploring.

Shaked met Erdan in the last few days to discuss ways of advancing the lawsuit. The two decided to ask a large international law firm specializing in international trade law for an opinion on whether the move was worthwhile, and the chances of its success, before going further. The official said a number of law firms have already been approached.

Foreign and economy ministry officials said the chances of such a suit succeeding are extremely slim and that it could cause more harm than good.

They said such a step could lead to a counter move by Arab states against Israel in the WTO that would lead to a decision against Israel. As a result the WTO could issue a statement that products made in the settlements aren’t legal at all under international law, and therefore should be boycotted, not merely labeled, these officials said.

“This is a dangerous procedure that would lead to an unnecessary politicization of Israel in the WTO,” said a senior Foreign Minister official who is dealing with the issue. “You know how you enter such a move but not how you come out of it.”

A number of right-wing law professors are urging Israel to take legal action against the European Union. The most prominent are international law professors Avi Bell from Bar-Ilan University and Eugene Kontorovich of Northwestern University.

The two wrote a legal position paper for the Jerusalem-based rightist institute Kohelet Policy Forum and passed it on to the various ministries. They have also met with Shaked and Erdan several times in recent months.

Bell and Kontorovich write in their paper that one of the WTO’s main principles is non-discrimination between member states. In other words, products from one country must be treated the same as products from another country. The European Union decided to label settlement products, but no such decision was made regarding products from other conflict areas, such as Moroccan products from Western Sahara or Turkish products from north Cyprus. This constitutes discrimination against Israel and breaches the WTO’s principles, the two law professors contend.