Thursday

20th Feb 2020

EU-Israel meetings resume after labels dispute

  • Pop-up synagogue in Hebron, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank (Photo: Rosie Gabrielle)

EU and Israeli officials held talks on farms and fisheries on Tuesday (8 December). The meeting was meant to soothe tension on settler labels. But for some, the EU just got tricked.

The talks, held in Beit Dagan, come ahead of a second meeting, on Wednesday in Jerusalem, about industry, trade, and services. The EU delegation in Tel Aviv said they’re “part of the regular, annual schedule of EU-Israel sub-committee meetings" under a bilateral pact from 2004.

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But they are special in the context of the labels quarrel.

When the EU Commission, last month, said retailers must put special labels on Israeli settler exports, the Israeli government accused it of anti-Semitism and said EU insititutions can no longer take part in Arab-Israeli peace initiatives.

It cancelled two sub-committee meetings, on human rights and on international organisations, and declined to set a date for a meeting on EU projects in the West Bank.

The EU foreign service told EUobserver the farm and industry talks don’t constitute “resumption” of relations because they were planned a while back and are merely “going ahead as foreseen.” It added: “The EU-Israel relationship is good, broad, and deep. This will continue.”

But privately, EU diplomats see them as a way to put the labels issue behind them.

The cancelled political meetings let Israel save face and let off steam, while the economic meetings help get back to business as usual, the logic goes.

For rule of law campaigners, the EU is letting Israel dodge political obligations while reaping trade benefits, however.

“The EU is letting Israel cherry-pick the bilateral relationship. Instead, it should say: ‘You can’t have economic dialogue without a political and human rights dialogue. It’s one package, just as for other countries in the EU neighbourhood’,” Martin Konecny, from EUMEP, a Brussels-based NGO, said.

“This would give Israel an incentive to restart the political dialogue.”

Meanwhile, right-wing Israeli politicians and NGOs are trying to pick holes in the labels regime. But for their part, Germany and Greece, two traditionally pro-Israeli EU states, last week endorsed the scheme.

The German foreign ministry told the Jerusalem Post, an Israeli daily, on Friday the labels are not “a stigmatised warning decal, as many have presented.” It added: “What Brussels wants is … only a clear designation of the origin of the products.”

The Greek foreign ministry on Thursday denied reports it sent a letter to Israel pledging to boycott labels. The letter “does not, in fact, exist” it said. “Respecting international law, Greece never recognised the settlements in the West Bank.”

News on labelling implementation is patchy so far.

But in the past four weeks, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Sweden published special notices on their foreign ministry websites.

Haaretz, another Israeli daily, reports that KaDeWe, a German retailer, removed wine from the Golan Heights, an Israeli-occupied part of Syria, from its shelves, but put it back when customers complained.

The Golan Heights Winery, which exports to Germany, Italy, the Nordic countries, and Poland, voiced concern on future sales. But the Gvaot Winery, in the West Bank, told Haaretz its foreign customers are buying more than ever in a gesture of loyalty.

EUobserver contacted Israel's EU mission for a comment, but it didn't reply.

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