(CNSNews.com) – Israel on Wednesday slammed the European Union for approving new guidelines for labeling products from Jewish settlements in disputed territories, with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu calling it “immoral” and questioning what he called a decision to “single out” Israel among the world’s many conflict areas.
As the decision was looming a day earlier, State Department spokesman Mark Toner reiterated U.S. opposition to boycotts against Israel, but also said that Israel should have seen it coming.
“If Israel continues to expand settlement activity, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to – if some in the international community pursue steps to limit commercial relations with the settlements,” he told Tuesday’s daily briefing. “This underscores the urgent need for Israel to change its policies with regard to settlements.”
While Toner said several times that the U.S. opposes boycotts or efforts to isolate Israel, he seemed unwilling, despite repeated questioning, to say whether the U.S. opposes the E.U. labeling move – even though he conceded that labeling products from settlements “could be perceived as a step on the way to a boycott.”
Toner said the U.S. has been discussing the issue with the E.U., but would not elaborate.
He also said that “the long-standing bipartisan position of the United States on Israeli settlements has also not changed” – the U.S. views them as “illegitimate and are harmful to prospects for peace and to Israel’s long-term security.”
The West Bank (Judea-Samaria) and eastern Jerusalem were captured from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria during the 1967 Six Day War, and the international community views them as illegally occupied.
Hundreds of thousands of Israelis live in towns and villages in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem, and another 20,000-plus on the Golan Heights.
Products originating from these communities include dates and other fruit, wine and Dead Sea cosmetics. Israeli companies in those areas employ some 30,000 Palestinians, according to Israel’s foreign ministry.
A notice released by the E.U.’s executive Commission on Wednesday said it was misleading to consumers for goods originating from Israeli settlements to be labeled “product from Israel.”
It would also be unacceptable for such products to be labeled “product from the West Bank” or “product from the Golan Heights” since that “would mislead the consumer as to the true origin,” the document said.
Therefore the words “Israeli settlement” should be added to labels – for example, “product from the West Bank (Israeli settlement),” it said.
Goods originating in settlements in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Golan Heights are not entitled to benefit from preferential tariff treatment under an E.U.-Israel association agreement.
‘A significant move toward a total boycott of Israeli settlements’
The European Commission characterized the labeling guidelines as a consumer protection measure, a way to “give consumers the possibility to make an informed choice.”
“The EU does not support any form of boycott or sanctions against Israel,” it said in a fact sheet. “The E.U. does not intend to impose any boycott on Israeli exports from the settlements.”
But the Israeli foreign ministry was skeptical.
“There is no doubt that the main purpose of the measure is to exert political pressure upon Israel,” it said in a statement, adding that the initiative had been promoted not by consumer-protection bodies but by “anti-Israel organizations.”
The ministry said the guidelines could encourage the idea that boycotting Israeli products is acceptable. It also questioned the E.U.’s decision to focus on the territories under Israeli control “while ignoring that there are over 200 other territorial disputes worldwide, including those occurring within the E.U. or on its doorstep.”
For PLO Secretary-general Saeb Erekat, there seemed little doubt that the E.U. decision would pave the way for a boycott. He welcomed what he called “a significant move toward a total boycott of Israeli settlements, which are built illegally on occupied Palestinian lands.”
Earlier, 36 U.S. senators signed a bipartisan letter sent to the European Commission urging it not to go ahead with the labeling move, saying it “appears intended to discourage Europeans from purchasing these products and promote a de-facto boycott of Israel, a key ally and the only true democracy in the Middle East.”
“The proposed labeling guidelines play into the narrative of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) movement, which is an effort to delegitimize Israel rather than promote a resolution of outstanding issues between Israel and the Palestinians,” the letter said. “Far from advancing such a resolution, the proposed labeling would prejudge the outcome of future negotiations.”
The letter was initiated by Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and signed by another 34 senators from both parties.