Opinion

When Is a West Bank Product Made in Israel? When Settlers Say So

The EU ruling on labeling settlement products elicited a hysterical reaction from the Israeli right, which wants to pretend there is no border between Israel and the occupied territories

A worker carrying boxes containing wine bottles for export at Shiloh Wineries, north of the West Bank city of Ramallah, in 2015.
Reuters

If you only get your news through the filter of the Israeli right, you might be under the impression that after Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Israel’s biggest deadliest enemy right now is the European Union.

The EU’s crime — or, more exactly, the European Court of Justice’s crime — was to issue a ruling on Tuesday requiring products made in West Bank settlements to be labeled as being made in a West Bank settlement.

To those who naively think a product’s “Made in” label should identify where it is made, be warned that you don’t understand what is at stake. The Lawfare Project, which is dedicated to defending the “civil and human rights of the Jewish people and pro-Israel community,” termed the ruling nothing less than “disastrous,” one that will politicize product labeling and — horror of horrors — enable people to purchase goods based on “subjective ‘ethical considerations.’”

And that was one of the more restrained responses.

One commentator framed it as part of an EU drive “to ethnically cleanse the heart of the Jewish homeland of Jews.” A statement from Psagot Winery, which had brought the suit trying to block the labeling requirement, angrily noted that the ruling was issued “on the very same day that Palestinian terror organizations are firing rockets at millions of Israeli citizens” — as if the EU and PIJ were co-conspirators in a two-pronged assault on the Jewish state. Even Israel’s Foreign Ministry echoed the settler playbook, claiming that the ruling “emboldens radical anti-Israel groups that advance and call for boycotts against Israel and deny its right to exist.”

When you get past all the invective, the right-wing rage is essentially based on three dubious claims.

One is that by requiring settlement businesses to identify themselves, the labeling rule discriminates against Jews since only Jews live in settlements. This is nonsense. The labeling requirement is based on the business’ location in a settlement, not on whether the business is owned by a Jew. If Psagot chooses one day to move its operations inside Israel’s pre-1967 borders, it can label its wine “Made in Israel.”

The second claim is that the status of the West Bank is still to be determined, so technically it isn’t occupied territory and Israel’s borders don’t really exist. The problem with this theory is that whatever the status of the West Bank is, the overriding fact remains that Israel hasn’t annexed it and it recognizes the Palestinian Authority as a quasi-government. As much as the settlers want to pretend otherwise, the West Bank is not part of the State of Israel and a product manufactured there isn’t made in Israel.

The third is that labeling settlement products for what they are is tantamount to a boycott. It’s not. The EU hasn’t boycotted products from Israeli settlements and has no plans to do so. However, if there are consumers who choose to boycott settlement products to protest the occupation, that is certainly their right. It’s not the EU’s job to enact policies aimed at pulling the wool over their eyes. It’s quite possible that some, perhaps even many, boycotters are anti-Semitic or hate Israel, but a “Made in Israel” label would serve them just as well as one saying “Made in the West Bank (Israeli settlement).”

The facts of the labeling controversy are these:

1. Far from engaging in the “ethnic cleansing” of Jews from their homeland, the EU has moved ahead with even a minor act of resistance to the occupation like product labeling in political slo-mo. A full year before the UN’s work got underway, the European Commission published its nonbinding call for members to legislate labeling rules. Four years later, only France has taken the trouble to do so — and it suspended the regulations last year. Elsewhere in the EU, the labeling rule isn’t enforced at all.

2. The settlements produce almost nothing for anyone to boycott. They are bedroom communities for people who commute to jobs in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Whatever industry that’s there is composed almost entirely of small businesses serving the local market and a few boutique business like Psagot, whose overseas customers are people who more likely than not support the settlement enterprise. If the EU ever gets around to enforcing its requirement, it will barely register a blip on Israeli exports.

3. Israeli-European trade is big business. The EU is Israel’s single largest export market and Israel (though not the settlements) enjoys preferential trade treatment. Tourism is booming and Israel captures a good chunk of foreign investment by European companies. The boycott, divestment and sanctions movement gets a lot of media attention, both from its supporters and opponents, but with consumers or businesses it’s a lost cause — and that’s what counts. The EU court ruling isn’t going to change that.

The hysteria we’ve witnessed this week over labeling isn’t about facts and figures, or even about law or human rights. It’s about perpetuating the right’s narrative of Israel under siege. It wants to make the labeling fight not one about the settlements and the occupation, but one about Israel’s very existence. But it’s not. The EU may be no friend of the settlers, but it’s no enemy of Israel.