The levels of hysteria and name-calling emanating from Israel neared crescendo-levels yesterday as the European Commission published its long overdue guidelines on the correct labelling of Israeli settlement products. Ostensibly the EU’s move is meant as nothing more than a clarification to allow European consumers to correctly ascertain the origin of Israeli products and thereby differentiate between those originating from within Israel’s internationally recognised borders and those from Israeli settlements located in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPTs). Yet the whole subject has caused a political uproar in Israel since it came to the fore in 2012.
With a new diplomatic storm bearing down on them, EU officials are relying on their argument that this is purely a technical implementation of repeated commitments by EU foreign ministers to stave off the worst. In doing so, they point to their own requirement to differentiate between Israel and its settlements based on the EU’s long-standing support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its legal obligation to not recognise illegal annexations or otherwise assist in policies that violate international law.
Using legal necessity as a shield against Israeli browbeating would be quite effective had the EU’s High Representative Federica Mogherini and her predecessor Catherine Ashton not repeatedly held the labelling guidelines hostage to political considerations. Intervening to delay the process – whether out of a desire to not upset the last round of US-led peace negotiations in 2013-2014, or so as not to be seen as intervening in Israeli elections during the first half of 2015 – has indulged Israel’s sense of exceptionalism. It has also allowed the Israeli government to turn the whole issue into a political argument to win concessions (or compensation).
The repercussions of mishandling the labelling issue should be a teachable moment, especially when considering how successful the EU was in dealing with Israeli participation in its flagship Horizon 2020 programme which excludes Israeli settlement entities from accessing EU funding for research and development projects. Brussels must understand that it has at its disposal a legal tool that is designed to make occupation unsustainable and disincentives the illegal acquisition of territory, provided it is allowed to function effectively as intended.
The EU is more likely to achieve its foreign policy objectives if it retains these legal instruments within its toolkit while refraining from political horse-trading to placate Israel. Additionally, asserting the primacy of its own rules can immunize against Israeli efforts to spook European politicians into submission through a diplomatic campaign based on disinformation, slander, moral blackmail, and out-right lies.
The EU has been far too passive in pushing back against comparisons from across Israel’s political spectrum – including from Prime Minister Netanyahu – that its actions are tantamount to the Nazi persecution of Jews. As a sign of this latent “anti-Semitism” the EU has been accused of singling out and de-legitimising Israel by supposedly not making the same demands of other countries involved in territorial disputes.
It is true that the EU has not consistently enforced this requirement across all of its bilateral relations. But setting aside the principle that deficient implementation of the law cannot be used as a reason to expect an exemption, the EU’s stance towards Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol has actually been much stronger than anything it has done so far vis-à-vis Israel’s occupation. If pushed, Europeans are more likely to gravitate towards a position that views the problem as deficient implementation, rather than too much implementation. For example, the UK’s High Court recently ruled that there is an arguable case of manifest error by the European Commission in applying international law when it comes to bilateral agreements with Morocco and determining the latter’s territorial jurisdiction over Western Sahara (which it fully annexed in 1979).
Nor could Israel’s depiction of labelling as an economic attack under the auspices of the grassroots “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” movement be any further from the truth. Much to the chagrin of Palestinians who have been calling for a complete ban of Israeli settlement products, these will in fact continue to be sold in European supermarkets. Moreover, given that they account for only 1 per cent of Israeli exports to the EU, there will be no discernible financial impact on Israel itself. The fact that EU labelling has no real bite is to be expected, after all its motivation is not political animosity but a European desire to continue deepening Israel’s unprecedented integration into Europe’s socio-economic fabric while upholding its own values.
EU differentiation is though far more than just labelling, and other measures can be far more impactful. Ultimately the only way for Israel to accommodate the EU’s legal requirements will be to either create a clear differentiation within its own economy or end the occupation. Short of this, Europe will increasingly struggle to continue isolating its bilateral ties from the illegality of Israel’s creeping annexation in the OPTs. The more EU differentiation is deepened and expanded, the more likely it will start having real financial consequences for average Israelis who remain ambivalent about Israel’s settlement project.
Israel’s heated reaction has much more to do with the way the EU is challenging the “Greater Israel” ideology promoted by a growing number of Israeli politicians – including a majority of cabinet members within the ruling coalition, such as Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely; Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Prime Minister Netanyahu.
In voicing their opposition, government ministers have thrown out all remaining pretence of supporting a two-state solution, openly acknowledging their opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 Green Line. Once again, opposition politicians appear to be reading from the same script. Somewhat incredibly though, this rhetoric has (unwittingly or not) also been taken up by the US Congress in a campaign to legislate US policy to target the EU's settlement-related actions – rather ironically as the US has long maintained similar labelling guidelines.
This year has so far been a wasted opportunity for the EU to fill the US diplomatic vacuum by helping to avoid slippage away from a two-state solution. The Obama Administration’s quiet encouragement of a more proactive European policy towards Israeli settlements has made such diplomatic failures even starker. Yet the EU still has a significant contribution to make in Israeli-Palestinian peace-making if it is prepared to make better use of the leverage it possesses by virtue of its close ties with both sides.
However, differentiation should only be one component of a more holistic European strategy that also privileges Palestinian reconciliation as a way of addressing the root causes behind the latest round of violence. Doing so means avoiding the trap of confidence building measures that risk being nothing more than circling the waggons, and instead focusing on long terms fixes for Gaza, reviving Palestine’s democratic credential, and promoting economic sovereignty. Europe can even help give the Palestinian liberation movement a renewed sense of direction, without which its main strategy will continue to be that of perpetually stumbling in and out of an ersatz peace process.
But unless and until the EU steps up its own game and asserts its own position, it leaves the field open for the above accusations to go unchallenged, gain further resonance and fester. If properly explained and pursued consistently on the other hand, EU differentiation can have a beneficial political impact by re-affirming international respect for the Green Line and helping to buttress the viability of a two state solution to the conflict. It also gives an incentive to Israeli businesses and institutions to separate their activities in Israel proper from those in the OPTs. Most importantly, EU differentiation can start to challenge the Israeli public’s support for the status quo and gradually move it in the direction of de-occupation.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.