Sunday, November 17, 2019

Labels and Fables

While rockets from Gaza were flying above our heads last week, angry messages were flying from Jerusalem to Brussels. Not over the targeted killing of Islamic Jihad commander Bahaa Abu al-Ata but over the decision of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) that the EU’s labelling of Israeli settlement goods in European supermarkets was legally binding. All EU member states needed to label certain products from settlements in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, e.g. with a label that reads “Made in The West Bank - Israeli settlement”

Speaker of the Knesset, Yuli Edelstein for example sent a letter to the President of the European Parliament David Sassoli, expressing his “dismay and disappointment” over the “disgraceful” decision. Edelstein’s letter contained most of the Netanyahu government’s standard arguments on this issue. The verdict “applies a double standard to Israel […] since out of “dozens of such areas around the world, […] only Judea, Samaria and the Golan Heights are subject to such labelling regulations.” Judea and Samaria should not be considered occupied by Israel “as they were never part of another country” and Israel’s control over them was legitimised by the Balfour Declaration and the 1920 San Remo Resolution. The court was prescribing differential treatment for Arabs and Jews based on ethnicity, was prejudging the “outcome of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations” (that one made me LOL) and had knowingly adopted the arguments of the BDS movement. Labelling would “inevitably result in a boycott of goods” from the settlements but also from Israel proper. The move was bound to harm relations with the EU and would, “undermine the EU’s ability to play a fair and objective role in the Middle East peace process.”
PM Netanyahu, not mincing words, declared that, “Europe the other day decided to act against Israel and put labels on products that are made here. They don’t join the sanctions against Iran, they join sanctions against Israel. Unbelievable!”
All this sent me back in time to November 2015 when the European Commission issued an “Interpretive notice on indication of goods from the territories occupied by Israel since June 1967.”  Technical documents are not my favorite reading matter but, since at the time (full disclosure) I was employed by the EU Delegation to Israel as press and information manager, I took the time to read this one carefully. The reaction in Israel then was as apoplectic as it is now and I was part of a team who had to explain the EU’s positions to a skeptical if not hostile, Israeli media and public. This was not a boycott, we stressed. The EU was opposed to boycotts of Israeli products. This was merely a technical measure, mandated by international law and part of the EU’s global labelling system. European consumers had the right to be informed as to the provenance of settlement products and since the EU didn’t recognise the settlements as being part of Israel, their Made in Israel label was misleading.  In any event, the labelling would be limited to only a few fresh food products, cosmetics, olive oil and wine and its economic impact would be very limited.   
None of this cut much ice with the public or the government which (temporarily) cut off diplomatic contacts with EU officials and continued to denounce the notice as a hostile political act carrying more than a whiff of anti-Semitism. Perhaps the hardest point to explain was why the EU applied its labelling in such a monolithic fashion without regard to the local political context. Didn’t the EU know that the  (East) Jerusalem neighbourhood of Ramot had been annexed to Israel and was therefore not a “settlement” and would remain under Israeli control in any conceivable peace agreement with the Palestinians? And did the EU really expect Israel to return the Golan Heights to Assad?
One of the main Israeli arguments, then and now, is that first to be hurt by labelling will be some 26,000 Palestinian workers employed in Israeli settlement enterprises “who enjoy good working conditions, fair wages and gain professional knowledge [..]”. The EU in its ignorance, was harming the “real peace” being forged as Jews and Palestinians worked alongside one other (camera pans to happy Palestinian workers in settlement factories). The EU’s response that it would rather see those Palestinians employed in their own state, was shrugged off.
What happened next was… not much. The EU member states, even those that had pushed for the labelling notice, showed far less enthusiasm for actually implementing it and the European Commission which has the duty to remind the member states of their obligations, appeared to be not overly anxious to do so. To illustrate, a recent study showed that only 10% of Israeli wines from the West Bank and the Golan were labelled across the EU as instructed.
The whole affair might have continued to stagnate but after the French economy ministry adopted the notice in 2016, the Psagot winery, (situated in a settlement outside Ramallah), challenged the labelling notice as unconstitutional in France. The French court agreed but since France was subject to EU law, decided to pass the matter on to the ECJ.  

By all accounts, Israel’s foreign ministry, aware of the danger of a final ECJ decision on labelling would have been happy if Psagot had dropped its appeal, but was unable to halt the procedure that ended with precisely the opposite result than that sought by Psagot and by the government.  
Nevertheless, Psagot’s CEO, Yaakov Berg was unrepentant. The winery he said, was proud of its contribution to combating this decision and intends to continue the struggle. The entire episode reminded him of “when my grandmother was told [by the Nazis] that her shop under the law would be labelled as having ‘Jewish’ ownership.”
Will the EU’s member states now clearly enforce the labelling guidelines or will Israel's counter-lobbying cause them to think twice? And if labelling becomes widespread, what will be the outcome? According to President of the Israel Manufacturing Association, Shraga Brosh, there would be potential damaging consequences not only for the settlement enterprises concerned but for all Israeli products sold in Europe since importers were liable to reconsider buying Israeli products for fear of becoming entangled in the labelling issue.  
Perhaps some. My guess is most will continue to buy Made in Israel products if the quality and the price is right.

But what of the political consequences of the ruling?  European proponents of labelling argue that it contributes, “to the preservation of the two state solution”. On the Israeli left too, the argument runs that Israelis need a wake-up call, to feel some economic pain to remind them that the occupation is not cost-free, that despite the best efforts of the government, the Green Line cannot be entirely smudged. How far will the ruling go towards meeting those goals?
Today, (according to a recent Haaretz poll) only 43% of Israelis believe that a two state solution or a confederation is the preferred solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while about the same percentage are in favour of one form or another of annexation. In mainstream Israel 2019, settlements authorised by the government are regarded as entirely legal and therefore outside attempts to differentiate them from Israel proper are considered reprehensible. Moreover, the ruling by the “anti-Semitic” EU body will provide Israel’s national camp” with plenty of grist for its propaganda mill. So while Israel’s tiny left may enjoy a brief ray of sunshine, the net result, if any, will probably be a further hardening of Israeli attitudes towards the EU without any appreciable contribution to the “two state solution”

And what if you are convinced, as I am, that the fact that over 400,000 Jewish Israelis now live over the Green Line, has already made a two state solution an impossibility?  Should I be pleased that the Green Line may be reinstated in the public’s awareness? I have to admit that my heart is not full of joy.  If a two state solution based on the Green Line is a dead duck, then Israelis and Palestinians are destined, or doomed, to live in a one state reality. Ultimately this means that the Green Line’s symbolic role as the prospective  border between Israel and a future Palestinian state is bound to fade into irrelevance, with or without European rules about the wording on packaged organic tomatoes.
One day, Israel will have to drop the pretence that the occupation is temporary and the EU will have to drop the pretence that there is a “Middle East Peace Process” that will lead to a Palestinian state. When that happens, all sides will have to re-calibrate. Meanwhile, the EU is perhaps the last staunch defender of the two state solution and if you still believe that such a solution is possible, you should appreciate that. Regretfully, from the vantage point of the Tel Aviv Rooftop, it seems to be fighting yesterday’s battle, a battle that Israel, for better or worse, has already “won”.

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