Several decades ago, the business of food labelling was a geopolitical issue. From the late 1950s onwards, shoppers were asked to look at labels and not buy South African fruit and wine.
The anti-apartheid consumer boycott campaign was not lifted until 1993, and this has all come back to the fore recently with the European Commission (EC) issuing new guidelines about labelling for products made in Israeli communities and for businesses based in the occupied territories of Palestine and Syria. Under the EC directive, agricultural and cosmetic products sold within the European Union must declare their place of origin.
The legal position of Israeli settlements in the West Bank is highly contentious, as readers will readily appreciate. The EU adopts the view that the settlements are illegal and that their continued existence represents a major barrier to an eventual two-state solution. This is a view not shared by Israel and Netanyahu was reportedly furious that the EC chose to focus on Israeli produce emanating from the occupied territories. Diplomatic relations are strained again because any decision to highlight words like ‘settlement’ is seen in Israel (and by its supporters) as a political and economic assault on the legality and continued existence of those very communities.
“If products are not seen as coming from within the recognised sovereign territory of Israel, those items do not qualify for preferential access to EU markets”
The products affected are largely fruit, vegetables, wine and olive oil. There would be a mandatory indication of origin – something like ‘product from West Bank (Israeli settlement)’ or ‘product from West Bank (Palestinian settlement)’ would be proposed henceforth. Previously there had been a voluntary scheme of indication of origin. The introduction of a mandatory process is significant if Israel wishes to continue to access the common market of the EU.
For Israel, it also means that if the products are not seen as coming from within the recognised sovereign territory of Israel, then those items do not qualify for preferential trade access to EU markets. This exclusionary clause has been in effect in some form or another since 2004. In other words, the EU believes that the arrangements that exist between itself and Israel only extend to the pre-1967 territorial boundaries of Israel. The occupied territories are not considered by those agreements. It inevitably means that this directive, while informing European consumers about place of origin, will also cost Israeli businesses money.
More broadly, the EU directive nourishes an ongoing debate about the role of boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. Started in 2005, the campaign calls for pressure to be placed on Israel in retaliation for its continued occupied of territories. Arguments continue to rage about whether the BDS campaign is appropriate, efficacious, hypocritical and/or anti-Semitic. What is intriguing is that the EU regards the new labelling guidelines as ‘technical’ and more a matter of informing the EU consumer than being anything geopolitical. But in the febrile atmosphere of Israel/Palestine, Israel sees the matter as discrimination. Netanyahu compared it to the boycott of Jewish businesses in Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
“The labelling directive might provoke further boycotting in order to register support of either Israel or Palestine businesses”
This directive also means that products from the West Bank could be labelled ‘product from Palestine’ and could be seen as contributing to the promotion of Palestine as an independent nation-state with a functioning export economy. For supporters of Israel and Palestine, the labelling directive might provoke further boycotting or paradoxically determination to buy these goods in order to register their support of either Israel or Palestine businesses operating in the occupied territories. Prime Minister Netanyahu, interestingly, warned that Palestinian workers employed in Israeli enterprises might have their job security imperilled if the latter become economically disadvantaged.
This article was published in the January 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.