Israel Suspends Talks With EU to Protest West Bank Label Plan

  • EU proposes labeling Israeli imports produced in settlements
  • Netanyahu denounces move as `hypocritical' double standard

Israel will suspend talks with the European Union after the bloc recommended member states label the origin of goods imported from West Bank settlements, a move that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned as “hypocritical.”

Foreign ministry officials told EU ambassador to Israel Lars Faaborg-Anderson in a meeting on Wednesday that Israel was placing on hold “diplomatic dialogue” in various forums set to take place in coming weeks, according to a text message from the ministry.

The dispute reflects a deeper division over Israel’s West Bank settlements, which the EU views as a breach of international law and considers an obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking that last broke down more than a year ago. The EU already denies goods produced in the settlements the preferential customs treatment given to other Israeli exports.

An EU official sought to downplay the step’s significance, saying Wednesday that it is not new legislation or policy.

“It clarifies certain elements linked to the interpretation and effective implementation of existing EU legislation,” European Commission Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis told reporters in Brussels. “This is a technical issue, not a political stance.”

“The EU decision is hypocritical and constitutes a double standard; it singles out Israel and not the 200 other conflicts around the world,” Netanyahu responded from Washington. “The Israeli economy is strong and will withstand this.”

Deeper Division

Because settlement goods account for a small proportion of Israel’s exports to the European Union, the fallout is seen in Israel as more of a diplomatic blow than an economic one. The EU is Israel’s biggest foreign market, accounting for about a third of the country’s trade.

David Simha, president of the Israeli-Palestinian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, estimated settlement products comprise 0.1 percent of total Israeli exports. Those most directly hurt by the labeling may be Palestinian workers employed by Israeli businesses in the West Bank who may lose their jobs if business suffers, Simha said.

“This is a step in the wrong direction, because it will just help strengthen the opinions of the most extreme people on both sides,” he said.

Export Impact

Some individual EU countries have already set guidelines on labeling settlement products, including the U.K., Belgium and Denmark. The labeling has led to a decline in recent years of food and flower exports to Europe produced by agricultural settlements in the West Bank’s Jordan Valley, according to Israeli officials.

They’ve expressed concern that a broader European designation of settlement products would help strengthen the pro-Palestinian groups who advocate economic, cultural and academic boycotts of the Jewish state.

“This is a welcome sign that European governments are reacting to public opinion, civil society campaigning and Israeli intransigence and are becoming more willing to take some basic action against Israeli violations of international law,” Mahmoud Nawajaa, general coordinator with the Palestinian BDS National Committee, said in an e-mailed statement. BDS stands for boycott, divestment and sanctions.

The Israeli group Peace Now, which calls for a two-state solution to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said the labeling “will allow European residents to make purchases according to ideological considerations,” and may “help curb efforts to boycott Israel entirely, such as those advocated by the BDS movement.”

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