The European Union Labelling Problem

Israel’s official reaction to a European Union ruling that Israel can no longer attach made-in-Israel labels to some goods produced in the occupied West Bank, Golan Heights and East Jerusalem is nothing less than overblown and self-serving.

On November 11, the European Commission — the EU’s executive body — issued guidelines mandating that certain products from these areas, captured by Israel in the Six Day War, should not carry a “product of Israel” label but rather a label indicating its “settlement” origin.

The Israeli government’s response was immediate and vitriolic.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tut-tutted that the EU should be “ashamed of itself.” Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked blasted the measure as “anti-Israel and anti-Jewish.” Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon claimed it was a “shameful step giving a prize to terrorism.” Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotolevy likened labelling to boycotts.

These allegations stretch the truth to absurd limits.

Firstly, as the EU’s ambassador in Israel and the U.S. State Department spokesman have correctly pointed out, the labelling regimen is not a boycott. Nor is it really something new. Starting in 2009, several European countries –Denmark, Belgium and Britain — began issuing separate sets of labelling guidelines.

Goods from Israel, within its pre-1967 lines, are not affected by the ruling by one iota, and the EU is still Israel’s number one trading partner. The rules apply to a relatively limited range of products running the gamut from fresh vegetables, fruits and wine to eggs, honey and olive oil. These products comprise a tiny fraction of Israel’s exports to the 28-member bloc.

Secondly, the EU’s labelling system, rather than being an insidious campaign to delegitimize Israel, is instead a European shot across the bow designed as a warning to Israel that its 48-year occupation of these territories is unanimously rejected and considered contrary to international law and an onerous obstacle to achieving a just two-state solution.

That’s something Netanyahu and his blinkered cabinet ministers do not seem to understand or appreciate.

Contrary to Israel’s unfounded claims, the new labelling system is neither anti-Israel nor antisemitic, nor is it a sop to Palestinian terrorism. The EU maintains cordial, even warm, bilateral relations with Israel, and the suggestion that its labelling regulation is really a manifestation of anti-Jewish animus is simply ridiculous. Israeli politicians, cynically or not, are trivializing the meaning of antisemitism to suit their own own needs.

As the Israelis know, made-in-Israel labels carry little or no tariffs, while products originating in Jewish settlements beyond the old Green Line are not eligible for this benefit. So let’s be clear: Israel’s denunciation of the labelling system is partially grounded in economics, since the EU measure is bound to have a negative impact on exports from settlements. Last year, they were worth up to $50 million. Obviously, the EU has no interest in sanctioning such trade when it opposes the settlement project in principle and practice.

Yaalon’s claim that EU labels foster terrorism is far-fetched, to say the least. The kind of Palestinian terrorism that has erupted of late in East Jerusalem and the West Bank is caused, in part, by Israel’s long-past-the-date occupation. The Palestinians are fed up and frustrated by it. They see no light at the end of the tunnel. They lash out at Israelis, much to their own detriment.

The Israeli government is clearly dissatisfied with the EU’s labelling regulations. But Israel should not lose sight of the fact that its counter-productive settlement policy is essentially at the root of this problem.


About the Author
Sheldon Kirshner is a journalist in Toronto. He writes at his online journal,