State Dep’t Defends European Move Targeting Israeli Settlements

By Patrick Goodenough | January 20, 2016 | 4:05am EST
Goods from towns like Ariel, a 38-year-old community of almost 20,000 inhabitants some 40 miles north of Jerusalem, may no longer be labeled 'Made in Israel' under a new European Union policy, since it is considered an illegal settlement by the international community. (Photo: Ori/Wikimedia Commons)

( – The Obama administration on Tuesday came close to backing a new and harder line adopted by the European Union towards Israeli settlements in disputed areas, siding with the E.U.’s contention that labeling products originating from those areas do not amount to a boycott.

“We do not view the labeling of products as being from the settlements a boycott of Israel,” said State Department spokesman John Kirby.

E.U. foreign ministers meeting on Monday reinforced an earlier decision directing that products made or grown in disputed territories and destined for European markets no longer be labeled, “Made in Israel.”

In a resolution, they also agreed to ensure that all future agreements between the E.U. and Israel “unequivocally and explicitly” state that they do not apply to “territories occupied by Israel in 1967.”

“This does not constitute a boycott of Israel which the E.U. strongly opposes,” the resolution added.

It also called on Israel to “end all settlement activity,” complaining that such activity in eastern parts of Jerusalem “seriously jeopardizes the possibility of Jerusalem serving as the future capital of both states.”

And the resolution hinted that further actions could be taken in the future, saying that the E.U. would monitor developments and “consider further action in order to protect the viability of the two-state solution, which is constantly eroded by new facts on the ground.”

Asked during a State Department daily briefing whether the administration supports the E.U. stance, Kirby did not answer directly.

But after noting that the E.U. said its decisions did not amount to a boycott, Kirby indicated that the administration agrees.

“We do not view the labeling of products as being from the settlements a boycott of Israel,” he said. “We also do not believe that labeling the origin of products is equivalent to a boycott.”

Asked directly whether he agreed with the E.U. that its decisions do “not indicate a boycott, or isn’t a boycott, or won’t lead to one,” Kirby replied, “That’s right.”

Last November, when the E.U. first approved the new labeling guidelines, Kirby’s colleague Mark Toner conceded that labeling products from settlements “could be perceived as a step on the way to a boycott.”

The Israeli government also views it that way.

“Product labeling will strengthen the radical elements advocating a boycott against Israel and denying Israel’s right to exist, contradicting positions that the E.U. publicly opposes,” the foreign ministry said at the time.

After the latest E.U. statement, the foreign ministry on Monday renewed accusations that the 27-member bloc was singling out Israel.

“Out of 200 border conflicts in the world today, the E.U. has chosen to discriminate against Israel,” it said. “This approach prevents the E.U. from being an honest broker in the conflict.”

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis live in towns and villages in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem, which Israel captured from Jordan during the 1967 Six Day War.

The Palestinians want those areas, as well as the Gaza Strip – where no Israelis have lived since their government demolished 17 settlements and forcibly removed their 9,000 inhabitants in 2005 – for an independent state.

The E.U. decisions also apply to the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in the 1967 war and formally annexed in 1981. The chaos in Syria has hardened Israel’s long-held determination not to surrender the strategic ridge, where more than 20,000 Israelis live.

Kirby reiterated the administration’s stance that “we view Israeli settlement activity as illegitimate and counterproductive to the cause of peace. We remain deeply concerned about Israel’s current policy on settlements, including construction, planning, and retroactive legalizations.”

“The U.S. government has never defended or supported Israeli settlements because administrations from both parties have long recognized that settlement activity beyond the 1967 lines and efforts to change the facts on the ground undermine prospects for a two-state solution,” he added. “We are no different.”

(Kirby is correct that previous administrations for decades have been opposed to settlement activity, although it’s inaccurate to imply that that opposition has always been because of its potential to harm prospects for a two-state solution. President George W. Bush was the first American president to call for an independent Palestinian state.)

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