Food labeling is a hot topic in Europe right now. Following the horsemeat scandal, with traces of equine flesh found in beef products across the continent, there have never been such strident calls for responsible sourcing of food products clearly tracing their origin.
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The next big thing may be product labeling of a different kind. That’s what we can take away from last week’s leaked report by EU consuls based in East Jerusalem and Ramallah, which recommended stringent measures be imposed on imports from the occupied West Bank.
Israeli diplomats have been sanguine about the report, despite its harsh language. And indeed, it’s unlikely we will see the kind of radical changes the report recommends any time soon - measures such as opposing direct investment in settlement ventures, or refusing academic grants to settlements or their residents. The document went as far as suggesting EU tour operators could avoid settler-owned businesses, and that member states explore the possibility of banning “known violent settlers” from entering the EU.
Even a European-wide ban on the import of produce from the West Bank is improbable; the 27-member body is hardly likely to vote unanimously on such an issue, and in any case, there has to be action at the level of the UN Security Council before the EU instigates such sanctions.
Ireland, currently holding the presidency of the council of the EU, supports a wholesale ban but admits there is no reasonable chance of seeing this happen. Yet there is one part of the proposals which touches on an issue which comes up again and again in EU circles: The correct labeling of settlement imports.
The framework is already there. Settlement produce has long been excluded from the preferential treatment received by goods from Israel proper, although this is not fully implemented.
Last week also saw a letter from EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton to all member states calling for this existing legislation to be enacted, and she makes the connection herself.
“Closely linked to this is the question of products imported into the EU originating beyond Israel’s pre-1967 borders and their correct labeling on the EU market,” Ashton wrote.
Individual countries, such as the U.K. and Denmark, have already taken action themselves to label products from the West Bank. And a wider initiative is well within the realms of possibility (Further afield South Africa has approved the labeling of settlement goods, a move which Israeli officials, without the apparent trace of any irony, denounced as “apartheid”).
So what would the effect of such labeling be?
Europe currently imports settlement goods worth $300 million a year; a report released last October, Trading Away Peace, purported to show how European trade actually shored up the settlement enterprise.
“This is approximately fifteen times the annual value of EU imports from Palestinians,” the report, produced by a coalition of NGOs, said. “With more than four million Palestinians and over 500,000 Israeli settlers living in the Occupied Territory this means the EU imports over 100 times more per settler than per Palestinian.”
But while EU is Israel’s biggest partner, no-one believes that stricter labeling would have a massive affect on the Israeli economy. According to the European commission, EU imports from Israel are dominated by chemicals, machinery and precious stones – not dates or oranges. Even an outright ban would have limited impact - agricultural produce from the fertile Jordan valley is not a crucial component of Israeli exports to the EU, and the domestic market could absorb them.
Last autumn the then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman rather disingenuously warned EU foreign ministers that labeling would hurt precisely those they were trying to help, with the immediate effect of hitting “the income of Palestinian residents, many of whom work in industry in the settlements.”
No-one is going to buy that. It suits Jerusalem’s purpose to willfully muddle wholesale BDS - boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel - with the specific targeting of the settlements. The 2011 law allowing lawsuits against Israelis calling for boycotts against any institution or area under its control demonstrates this strategy. And labeling does not equal the imposition of a boycott, although Israeli fears that it would be the thin end of the wedge.
The EU is simply fed up. Fed up of investing billions in supporting Palestinian state-building which goes nowhere, fed up of being the laughable counterpoint to U.S. support, fed up of Israeli insinuations that criticism of the occupation is some kind of dark, lingering European hostility to the Jewish state itself.
The traditional role of the bloc was to pay for Israeli-Palestinian peace adventures, while other players made the big decisions. Now, maybe, it can use its famed bureaucracy to make a telling political point – not one that has a major economic impact, but one that will affect Israel’s brand in the same way that consumers in Europe now think twice before buying a frozen lasagna.
Daniella Peled is editor of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and has written widely from across the Middle East and Afghanistan.