Germany's Gift to BDS: The Slippery Slope of Labeling Israeli Products

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has given in to pressure to adopt provocative labeling for products made in Israeli settlements. Next stop: a full boycott of Israeli goods?

Benjamin Weinthal
Benjamin Weinthal
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Benjamin Weinthal
Benjamin Weinthal

The left-liberal German Green party finally forced the hand of the conservative Merkel administration to explicitly declare—what before had been an open secret—its support for product labels covering export goods from the occupied territories in the West Bank and Golan Heights.

Germany’s Green Party unleashed a firestorm of criticism in May over its parliamentary initiative to label Israeli exports to Europe and the Federal Republic. Critics in Germany and the United Kingdom argued that the Green Party push was an eerie reminder of the Hitler movement’s “Kauf nicht bei Juden!” [Do not buy from Jews!] boycott action and a modernized form of the yellow star.

Dr. Emily Haber, a state secretary in the German Foreign Ministry, conveyed the new position of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government in a letter to the Green Party: “The label ‘Made in Israel’ is, according to the opinion of the federal government, only allowed for products from within the borders of Israeli state territory before 1967.”

The measure is an unashamedly provocative anti-Israel move by the largely pro-Israel Merkel administration. It will blur the lines between an all-encompassing boycott of Israeli merchandise and demarcation of settlement products. In short, the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement will push the punitive label action down the slippery slope of blocking access to all Israeli goods.

The details of Germany’s move to discipline Israel in the product arena could place a further strain on Merkel’s relationship with the Jewish state. Just last month it was revealed that Germany upset Israel because it seeks a seat on the UN Security Council in 2019. Germany’s entry into the race for the coveted UN Security Council spot will likely pulverize any chance Israel has to secure the seat itself (an admittedly uphill battle, but since 2005 Israel has expressed an interest in the option of securing one of the two seats reserved for countries in the Western European and Others regional grouping).

The recurring E.U. threat of branding settlement products has hung like the sword of Damocles over Israel since a December meeting of the E.U.'s 27 foreign ministers to implement such a labeling system. The officials stated that “the European Union and its members are obligated to fully and effectively implement existing EU legislation and agreements with Israel regarding products from the settlements.”

Der Spiegel reported in April—in unsurprisingly gleeful language— that the E.U. initiative comes as an economic slap, aiming “to prohibit the sale of goods produced in the occupied territories - or at least as long as they are falsely labeled.”

Other E.U. politicians have pushed labeling as part of a movement towards a full boycott of products made in Israeli settlements. The Irish foreign affairs minister, Eamon Gilmore, said in May that the label system is “in effect” a boycott of goods, and more recently he went further, saying: “The settlements in the West Bank are illegal and therefore the products from those settlements should be treated as illegal in the European Union.”

Germany’s decision courts disaster for Israel, largely because a country still associated with the first “Kauf nicht bei Juden!” boycott against German Jewish products during 1930’s has no qualms about its advocacy for economic sanctions against Israel, the only country that enjoys a so-called “special relationship” with the Federal Republic.

Inside Europe, Germany, though not a signatory to an anti-Israel petition, is now symbolically part and parcel of the pro-label petition signed in April 2013 by 13 E.U. foreign ministers from Spain, Portugal, France, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Slovenia, Luxembourg and Malta.

Impeding an imminent E.U. implementation of the label system is the U.S. Secretary of State of John Kerry and his efforts to breathe new life and fire into the peace talks. Kerry asked that the thorny issue of product identification be postponed so as not to disrupt a return to negotiations.

The E.U. regulations may clash with U.S. law discouraging, and in many cases barring, companies to conduct business with those that boycott Israel.

Though the Greens claim to be toeing the E.U. party line—and stress their concern with providing German customers with “ informed purchasing decisions” about Israeli products, the party has a rather unsavory set of historical actions targeting the Jewish state.

In 1983, the Green Party put out a “Green Calendar” with the headline “Israel, the gang of murderers” and called for a “boycott of goods from Israel.” In an article last month in the German daily Die Welt entitled ‘The long tradition of Green Anti-Zionism,” the Green Party’s history of blaming Israel for the Middle East’s problems was highlighted. A year after the notorious “Green Calendar” was published, Green party politicians launched a fact-finding mission in the Middle East with visits to Jordan, Israel, Syria, Lebanon, and the occupied West Bank. The delegation prepared a final document ahead of the trip declaring Israel “totally responsible for the emerging blood bath in the Middle East, when Israel does not decisively change its policies.”

A mere seven years later, a leading Green deputy, Hans-Christian Ströbele, who still serves in the Bundestag, justified the later Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’srocket attacks on the Jewish state during the First Gulf War in 1991 as a "logical, almost compelling consequence of Israel's politics."

Ströbele’s fellow MP Kerstin Müller, who helped engineer the Green Party legislative motion to compel the Federal Government to join the label process, is slated in late 2013 to head her party’s Tel Aviv-based Heinrich-Böll-Foundation. It is telling that no other mainstream political party in Europe has devoted a comparable level of legislative energy to securing labels on Israeli products.

Another telling example of the Greens’ disparate treatment toward Israel is that they have shown no comprehensive and systematic effort to push Germany’s government to similarly label products from Turkish occupied North Cyprus. In fact, the E.U. has showed no appetite for product labeling from territorial conflicts spanning the globe: Gibraltar, the Falklands, Western Sahara, Tibet, Kashmir, the Russian-held regions of Georgia, Armenian-held regions of Azerbaijan, North Cyprus, and Kosovo. Israeli products remain the notable exception subject to EU consumer protection.

Sadly, the label measure will toss a wrench into the potential for bilateral peace talks between the Palestinians and Israelis, and it accomplishes the converse of what the E.U. seeks: namely, a negotiated solution between the parties and not one imposed on Israel.

Benjamin Weinthal is a Berlin-based fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Delegates of German Green Party vote at the party convention of the Green Party in Hanover November 17, 2012. Credit: Reuters

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