Europe Should Demand Israeli Apology for Abusive Response to Settlements Labeling Spat

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Amichai Luria presents a bottle of his wine, used mainly for export, at the Shilo winery in the Jewish settlement of Shilo, West Bank, November 12, 2015.
Amichai Luria presents a bottle of his wine, used mainly for export, at the Shilo winery in the Jewish settlement of Shilo, West Bank, November 12, 2015.Credit: AFP

The European Commission last week issued an “interpretive notice on indication of origin of goods from the territories occupied by Israel since June 1967.” This led to a volley of criticism but also abuse from Israel’s leadership, officialdom and much of its political class from the far right to the soft left of Labor, itself unsurprising given their shared investment in the settlements project for almost half a century. Only the consistently anti-settlement  Zionist-left Meretz party and the Joint List representing Israel's beleaguered minority of Palestinians came out in favor of the EU move.

Alongside its rhetorical condemnation, Israel announced practical steps - suspending some political dialogues with the EU, demarching the EU’s ambassador and cancelling President Reuven Rivlin's forthcoming visit to Brussels. 

This Commission guidance was an awfully long time in the making. The EU should have moved more precipitously once the premise was established by EU foreign ministers in May 2012 when they called for the treatment of Israeli settlement products to be brought into line with EU legislation and even more so when foreign ministers twice requested this clarification in letters to respective EU High Representatives Ashton and Mogherini.

In its technical and legal aspects the Commission’s Interpretative Notice is a no-brainer. The settlements are illegal under international law and products from the settlements cannot therefore be from Israel as it is recognized by Europe and the rest of the world. To not draw this differentiation in the labeling of products is to mislead European consumers. By so dragging its feet in issuing these guidelines the EU invited political pressure. There is a lesson to be learned for Europe – to move precipitously to bring the entirety of its relations with Israel into correct adherence with this differentiation between Israel and the settlements.

It is of course legitimate for Europe and Israel to disagree and for those differences to be aired in public. Israel's substantive pushback against the labeling guidelines has not convinced European leaders and its claims are easily refutable. Israel has accused Europe of double standards, harming Palestinian workers, undermining peace talks and bad timing. 

Israel’s Prime Minister whinges about 200 conflicts globally on which Europe fails to act. But there are very few contemporary instances of such a long-standing occupation, in which territory has not been annexed and its indigenous population been denied basic political rights for several decades. Certainly not for a country so integrated into the global economy and with such a breadth and depth of relations with Europe as Israel is. Responding to Russia's recent actions in Crimea, for instance, Europe immediately took a much harsher approach than with Israel, by approving severe sanctions not just against Russian activities in Crimea but against several Russian individuals or companies involved in its illegal annexation of the peninsula. If there is a double standard it has been applied in reverse, to Israel's benefit. Even the case of Western Sahara and Europe’s relations with Morocco argues for the EU to do better in that instance, rather than worse on the Palestinian territories. 

It takes chutzpah on steroids for Israel to feign concern for the plight of Palestinian workers. Frequent World Bank and other credible studies painstakingly detail how the greatest damage caused to the Palestinian economy is Israel’s policy of closures and restrictions knocking $3.4 billion or 35% off annual GDP. For Israel to wrap its own discriminatory policies in a blanket of benevolence towards Palestinians is to echo the arguments made by the apartheid era South African regime in opposing global sanctions. Europe’s move can hardly derail a peace process permanently paralyzed by Israeli obstructionism, nor can Israel have it both ways – European timing to act is bad if peace talks are on and bad if peace talks are off! 

Europe should and has rejected these accusations and should continue to stare Israel down over who loses more from a downgrade in political exchanges. Not only is Israel factually and legally in the wrong, it is also more in need of Europe then vice versa and much as Israel is an ally, it falls into that category of problematic allies whose actions too often undermine European interests and drive instability.

If Israel insists on including settlements in its trade and other treaties with the EU and prefers to suspend those treaties pending such an outcome, that is Israel's prerogative. Israel has not pursued this path because it knows it has no case. Instead Israel is doing something more sinister, indulging in a particularly ugly campaign of intimidation via abusive and insulting name-calling towards Europe.

Israel's PM called Europe’s move “immoral” comparing it historically to the “labeling of Jews in Europe” bringing back “dark memories,” several government ministers described it as “anti-Jewish” and “anti-Semitic” with analogies drawn to the yellow stars of the Nazi era, Herzog and Lapid were often just as insulting.  

Europe must not be intimidated or allow these slurs to stand without a response at the highest political level. Europe should explain that such slander is unacceptable, the accusations must be retracted and that an absence to do so has consequences for their bilateral relationship. Prime Minister Netanyahu has already had to apologize for recent revisionism regarding the Holocaust and for racist barbs against his own Arab citizenry. This should be no different. If Europe cannot stand up for its own self-respect and dignity, how can it expect to be taken seriously by Israel or, indeed, anyone. 

Daniel Levy is Director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

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