Saturday

7th Dec 2019

EU shops to mark 'Israeli settlement' products

  • The EU doesn't recognise Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem, says West Bank settlements also illegal. (Photo: [john])

European retailers must put the phrase “product from … Israeli settlement” or equivalent on wine, farm produce, or cosmetics from the occupied territories, the EU Commission has said.

Its guidelines, published on Wednesday (11 November), say labels on other items, such as processed food and most industrial goods, are voluntary.

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But if shops choose to inform buyers where such items come from, they “must be correct and not misleading,” and cannot, for instance, say “made in Israel.”

The guidelines say they’re meant to help European consumers “take an informed transactional decision.”

They note that member states are responsible for taking action against retailers who don’t comply.

But the commission can launch “infringement proceedings” against EU states if they don’t implement the EU laws which underpin the guidelines - a corpus of dozens of pre-existing consumer directives and regulations, referenced in Wednesday's text.

Minimalism

EU officials downplayed the significance of the move in a press briefing in Brussels the same day.

One said it’s “really very minimalist” because settler products account for less than 1 percent of Israel-EU trade.

She noted the text, entitled “interpretative notice,” is only four pages long and that half of it is footnotes, which shows “just how technical and legal the document is.”

She said the commission published it due to pressure from some member states, the EU Parliament, and NGOs.

She noted it’s not issuing guidelines on other disputed territories around the world because “the situation in those territories is very different. You can’t compare the situation in the [Israeli] settlements to other disputes which exist.”

Israel occupied the West Bank and Golan Heights after the 1967 war.

The territories now host half a million settlers and sell between €100 million and €300 million a year of goods to the EU.

The EU and Israel, in 2003, already created a protocol for marking the exports with their postcodes so they can’t benefit from lower tariffs under a bilateral trade treaty.

Retaliation

For its part, the Israeli foreign ministry has warned it might exclude EU diplomats from future Arab-Israeli peace talks in retaliation.

“This recent step raises questions regarding the role that the EU aspires to play. It may also have implications for Israel-EU relations,” it said on Wednesday.

It said the commission “claim” that “this is a technical matter” is “cynical and baseless,” adding that the EU did it for “political reasons … inspired by the boycott movement.”

It warned the code will harden Palestinian attitudes amid a recent wave of violence.

It called the move “discriminatory,” because the EU isn’t applying similar measures to products from the 200 or so other disputed territories in the world, such as Western Sahara or Northern Cyprus.

It also summoned the EU ambassador to Israel for a dressing-down and cancelled some EU-Israel meetings.

Demonisation

Israeli lobbyists in Europe echoed the line.

Daniel Schwammenthal, director of the AJC Transatlantic Institute, said it “will play into the hands of those determined to demonise the Jewish state.”

Moshe Kantor, from the European Jewish Congress, said: “Once again, Israel is singled out for special treatment above all other nations of the world.”

The comments were mild compared to those of right-wing Israeli politicians.

"The European Union should be ashamed, " Israel's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

Justice minister Ayelet Shaked called the retail code “anti-Jewish” and said it reflects “European hypocrisy and ... hatred of Israel.”

Others said it “encourages terrorism” and that it’s “stupid, harmful.”

Endorsement

But left-wing politicians, former Israeli diplomats, and Daniel Kahneman, an Israeli nobel-winning economist, signed a 550-name petition welcoming the move.

“We call upon the EU and other world governments to take further steps in this direction,” they said.

“Millions of Israelis and Palestinians may now hope for a better future if the international community continues to be involved.”

The US, Israel’s main security sponsor, has also voiced tacit approval.

“Israel continues to expand settlement activity. It should not come as a surprise that some in the international community seek to limit commercial ties to the settlements,” Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman, said earlier this week.

Martin Konecny, from EUMEP, a Brussels-based NGO which promotes rule of law in the Arab-Israeli conflict, also praised the move.

But he said it’ll have little meaning unless it's enforced and unless the EU defends it in public.

Enforcement

“It should engage with the Israeli criticism and rebut unfair accusations,” he said.

On enforcement, the EU official told press in Brussels: “We don’t know how it will work in practice.”

Another EU official previously told EUobserver the commission has never launched infringement proceedings on misleading Israel labels, despite the fact some of the EU laws go back more than 15 years.

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