Pressure Drop

At U.S. Behest, Europe Delays Labeling Settlement Products

Ali Gharib on American pressuring Europe to lay off Israel for its settlement project.

A initiative in Europe to make clear on product labels that goods were made in Israel's West Bank settlements came up against a roadblock this weekend, or was delayed at a checkpoint, if you prefer. Haaretz's Barak Ravid reported on Sunday that Israeli officials had asked their American counterparts to prevail upon Europeans for a delay of an imminent move toward labeling. No one should be shocked that the U.S.—despite its own view that settlements are distinguishable as "illegitimate"—pressed the Europeans and that they acceded.

Why did the Americans and Europeans do this? Because the peace process: John Kerry and his colleagues told the Europeans he hoped to restart talks by June and, as a European diplomat told Ravid, "The E.U. decided to give Kerry the time he asked for." The clock's ticking before a re-do this summer, noted Noam Sheizaf: "It seems that Israel’s effort to prevent labeling settlements products is likely to fail: the labeling directives for member states will eventually pass and might even be implemented," Sheizaf wrote at +972 Magazine. "I doubt, however, if the impact of such a step will be more than symbolic in nature." That's probably true—products' point of origin, for instance, are often obscured because of a single Israeli export market—but the power of symbolism shouldn't be underestimated. We were told over and over again how Palestine's bid for a U.N. upgrade was largely symbolic, and it was—but it's also obviously altered dynamics both within the conflict and on the world stage.

One reason the symbolism strikes so poignantly with labeling is the obvious ironies that won't be lost on any close observers of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The proposed E.U. move dovetails with European obsessions about labeling products' origins, but would also make it easier for Europeans to carry out boycotts, not of Israel but of only the settlements. Breaking out settlements from Israel proper isn't as easy as it sounds, not least because the settlements are viewed in Israel as part of the state—and rightly so, since only one sovereign rules between the river and the sea and Israeli settlers live under Israeli law (while Palestinians live under occupation and its corresponding martial law). That, in turn, gives way to the other obvious irony: Israelis don't speak (often) of annexing large swaths of the West Bank. That is, the settlements are part of Israel but Israel nonetheless maintains that they're not permanent. An eventual Palestinian state, even if it's only hypothetical and stays that way, is essential to Israel's image abroad, or what's left of it anyway. Though the actual policies of control would hardly need to be altered, if Israel publicly claimed the whole West Bank on a permanent basis, it couldn't call itself a democracy without enfranchising the Palestinians therein.

And that's the other obvious irony: shielding the settlements from criticisms—honest labeling, even—in the name of the peace process willfully ignores that the peace process has actually been very, very good to the settlements. In the 26 years between 1967 and the signing of the Oslo peace accords in 1993, a little more than 100,000 Israel settlers lived in the West Bank. The seven years of active Oslo talks were boom years for settlers, a pace picked up again recently by Benjamin Netanyahu's government. Today, 20 years after Oslo, more than 350,000 Israelis live in the West Bank (which doesn't include the hundreds of thousands of Israelis living in East Jerusalem). So the transparent logic of this latest exercise becomes: Israel can't be criticized at all while any peace process is ongoing, though during said peace process Israel may continue to do things that merit criticisms of being precisely counterproductive to said peace process. Indeed, even with Kerry headed to the region this week for this fourth try at jumpstarting talks, Israel announced its intention to legalize four "outpost" settlements considered illegal even under Israeli law.

Instead of caving to Israeli demands delivered by the Americans, European governments should let their increasing frustrations with Israel be heard. It was their defection to the Palestinian side—or at least abstention—at last fall's U.N. General Assembly vote on a Palestinian upgrade that signaled the end of Israel's once-cherished "quality minority" of backers in the international community. Only those sporting ideological blinders could miss the obvious: Israeli actions—particularly its growing settlements—are both dooming the two-state solution and leading to further isolation, two very much intertwined effects. Yet consequences for those actions have remained few and far between, not because of Europe's relationship with Israel, but because of America's relationship with Israel. The latest developments in this arena make for an object study in how the U.S. shields Israel, right or wrong, from even calling a spade a spade.