The EU labels the Israeli occupation unacceptable

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

It recently became a habit of Israeli politicians, especially Prime Minister Netanyahu, to associate any policy of any international body that disagrees or criticizes the official line of the Jewish state, as an act of anti-Semitism.

Worse, Netanyahu exploits the memory of the Holocaust to defend his failing policies. First, he tries to apportion the Palestinians with blame for the genocide of European Jewry in the 1940s, by distorting history. Then last week, following the publication of an EU release of an Interpretative Notice, which is derived from a long standing European policy that rejects any Israeli claim for sovereignty over the occupied territories, Israeli politicians rushed to blame Europe for anti-Semitism.

The EU is making a deliberate attempt not to be seen as either associated with the BDS movement, or prejudicing future peace negotiations.

Yossi Mekelberg

In reality, the new policy does not require more than accurately and clearly labelling whether goods produced by Israelis originate from Israeli settlements built in occupied territories, or from the internationally recognised borders of Israel. This irked almost the entire spectrum of the Israeli political system. Netanyahu could not resist his increasing obsessive temptation to associate this policy with the way Jews were persecuted during the Second World War, asserting that the “labeling of products of the Jewish state by the European Union brings back dark memories. Europe should be ashamed of itself; it took an immoral decision.”

For nearly five decades, the entrenchment of the Israeli occupation in the Palestinian territories and the Golan Heights has been criticized by the international community without taking any concrete actions. With the exception of Israel’s right, and some die-hard supporters of the extreme version of Zionism elsewhere, there is an international consensus that the Israeli occupation and settlements are detrimental to peace, Palestinians’ legitimate rights and even Israel’s own long term survival. This consensus increasingly also included Israel’s closest ally the United States. Both Europe and the US are at their wits’ end in convincing the Israeli government that it is in its best interest to bring an end to the occupation of the West Bank and the blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip. One can almost sense that this recent mild step taken by the EU is an act of robust friendship rather than a hostile one. It is a gentle reminder for Israel that if it would like to stay true to its claim of aspiring to be a Jewish and democratic state, it surely cannot continue to deprive millions of Palestinians of their political and human rights.

Sadly, considering the enduring tragedy of the Syrian civil war, peace with Syria in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, is not going to be on the cards for a considerable length of time. However, the West Bank and Gaza are a completely different matter. It will be interesting to see in the coming weeks and months, if beyond the frenzied response by Israeli politicians, they, and public opinion, will internalise that this new EU measure was a mere subtle message. If Israel does not demonstrate a genuine willingness to enter into serious peace negotiations and continues to create facts on the ground that render a viable Palestinian state impossible, then harsher steps are likely to follow.

Tiptoeing around the Israeli settlement issue

The new European Commission Interpretive Notice makes labeling mandatory, though surprisingly does not include all settlements’ exports. It leaves the decision whether to purchase goods labeled “Product from West Bank (Israeli settlement),” up to the consumer’s conscience. It makes clear which products are Palestinian ones and which are produced in Israeli settlements. The European Commission was at pain to emphasize that this was neither a boycott on Israel, nor a recognition of an independent Palestinian state. The EU is making a deliberate attempt not to be seen as either associated with the BDS movement, or prejudicing future peace negotiations. However, it leaves open the question for how long Europe and the rest of the international community can tiptoe around the Israeli settlement issue and the ever deepening of the occupation.

The American response was also telling regarding their exasperation with Netanyahu’s obstructive policies. A State Department spokesperson insisted that the Obama administration opposes, “efforts to isolate or delegitimise the state of Israel,” but at the same time rejected the idea that the European move represented a boycott. Furthermore, the American official took it further, first by reiterating that the US regards the “settlements are illegitimate, and they’re harmful to prospects for peace and to Israel’s long-term security.” Then he explicitly called for a reality check on the part of Israel, to realise that considering the current Israeli settlement policy, it should not be surprised if further measures could even lead to boycotts.

The Israeli government’s response to suspend diplomatic dialogue with the EU in the coming weeks, in response to the demand to label products from over the Green Line, is as hollow as the claims that it was anti-Semitic. Israel’s dialogue with the EU is in Israel’s best interest, and to an extent the new measure provides Israel with time, if it wishes so and is capable of, to reflect on the long term implications of continuing its settlement policy in the West Bank. For the Palestinians the new measure did not go far enough, and the PLO Secretary General Saeb Erekat expressed his expectation that it would lead to a total boycott. This comment might not be perceived by the EU as helpful. Nevertheless, for the Israelis the label is on the wall, that defying the international community has a price. They should see the recent European act as a friendly nudge towards reassessing Israel’s settlement policy and its obstructive approach towards the peace process.

Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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