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Is Anyone Happy About EU Rules on Israeli Products Made on Settlements?

The EU published clarifications Wednesday on its guidelines for labeling food made on Israeli settlements. But neither Palestinians nor Israelis seem too happy about it.

A Jewish settler (L unseen) places the Israeli flag on a road sign while Israeli troops encircle Palestinian villagers protesting after the Israeli army cut off branches of olive trees on a road leading to the Jewish settlement of Tekoa, in the occupied West Bank, southeast of the town of Bethlehem, on November 25, 2013. Israeli authorities have given the go-ahead for the construction of 829 new settler homes in the occupied West Bank, settlement watchdog Peace Now said. AFP PHOTO/MUSA AL-SHAER        (Photo credit should read MUSA AL-SHAER/AFP/Getty Images)
A Jewish settler (L unseen) places the Israeli flag on a road sign while Israeli troops encircle Palestinian villagers protesting after the Israeli army cut off branches of olive trees on a road leading to the Jewish settlement of Tekoa, in the occupied West Bank, southeast of the town of Bethlehem, on November 25, 2013. Israeli authorities have given the go-ahead for the construction of 829 new settler homes in the occupied West Bank, settlement watchdog Peace Now said. AFP PHOTO/MUSA AL-SHAER (Photo credit should read MUSA AL-SHAER/AFP/Getty Images)

The European Union published guidelines on how businesses must label some goods produced in the West Bank, Golan Heights, and East Jerusalem, further fueling the raging diplomatic fight over the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

But the rules, which forbid Israeli-owned businesses operating in certain disputed territories from labeling goods as “Product of Israel” if they were produced in those territories, have angered pretty much everyone, with Israeli officials claiming the guidelines go too far while Palestinians argue they don’t go far enough.

“The European Union should be ashamed of itself,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who visited Washington this week, said Wednesday. “We do not accept the fact that Europe is labeling the side being attacked by terrorist acts.”

A spokesman for Saeb Erekat, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, told the New York Times that Israelis who make products on “the land of the Palestinian people” are committing war crimes and that the labeling rules need to be taken even further.

“Those products should not only be labeled, but should be banned,” he said.

In recent weeks, a spasm of violence in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Jerusalem has left the already-dim prospects for a serious resumption of peace talks between the two sides looking even more remote. The Barack Obama administration, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, spent years trying to prod the two sides towards a deal, or at least towards resumption of peace talks. But the ties between Jerusalem and Washington have grown increasingly strained, in part because of a White House belief that Netanyahu, who met with President Barack Obama Monday, isn’t prepared for substantive negotiations designed to create an independent Palestine. Last week, ahead of Netanyahu’s visit to Washington, Obama administration officials told reporters Obama had made a “realistic assessment” and ruled out any possibility of a peace agreement between Palestine and Israel before the end of his administration. Netanyahu said Monday he remained committed to a two-state solution. 

European Commission officials claim the new guidelines are intended to serve only as a clarification of existing rules, but Emmanuel Nahshon, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said that for the EU to publish such a document after recent clashes between Palestinians and Israeli Defense Forces was an exceptional and discriminatory step.”

Wednesday’s guidelines say that Israeli-owned businesses or farms located in settlements — including East Jerusalem, which Israel claims as part of its undivided capital — are not just prohibited from labeling certain goods as “Product of Israel” but are required to specifically label that certain products were produced on settlements. Stand-ins, including “Product of West Bank” or “Product of Golan Heights” will not suffice if it is not made clear the products were made on settlements.

“Even if they would designate the wider area or territory from which the product originates, the omission of the additional geographical information that the product comes from Israeli settlements would mislead the consumer as to the true origin of the product,” the rules read.

There are approximately 1,000 companies operating in West Bank settlements, in addition to an array of firms producing wine in Golan Heights. The EU is Israel’s largest trading partner, but products from companies in disputed territories reportedly amount to less than one percent of total trade, making the labels more symbolic than anything else.

The guidelines match the EU’s official position on the long-standing conflict, which holds that any territories gained in the 1967 Middle East war do not belong to Israel. That includes the West Bank, Golan Heights, and East Jerusalem, which Palestinians believe is their rightful capital. Israel annexed the Golan Heights in 1981 in a move not recognized internationally.  

All 28 EU member states will be required to abide by the new guidelines, which were written over the course of three years. The United Kingdom, Belgium, and Denmark already have their own rules about labeling goods from Israel, but will now be required to abide by the EU standard. The guidelines apply to cosmetics, wine, honey, eggs, poultry, all fresh fruits and vegetables, and other organic products. The labels are optional for prepackaged foodstuffs.

Israeli officials claim the EU rules are unfair because the government bloc has not implemented a similar protocol for other territorial disputes, including Morocco’s seizure of Western Sahara.

And Israel’s foreign ministry said Wednesday the EU policy was clearly inspired by “the boycott movement,” a reference to the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement that calls for the international community to refrain from using Israeli products and implement economic sanctions on Israel until it changes its policies toward Palestine.

“Product labeling will strengthen the radical elements advocating a boycott against Israel and denying Israel’s right to exist, contradicting positions that the EU publicly opposes,” Nahshon said in a statement.

Photo credit: MUSA AL-SHAER/AFP/Getty Images

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