Seeing European shops label Jewish products awakens painful memories.
By: David Walzer, Politico
Many Israelis — both on the right and left of the political spectrum — look in utter astonishment at EU plans to compel European importers and retailers to brand Israeli products from the settlements with newly minted, Israel-specific consumer labeling. And it seems these labels would apply only to Israel, not to other countries or territories embroiled in territorial disputes. It is a step that threatens to reshape our relations, and I fear not for the better.
Europe is Israel’s main partner in trade and business. We are an ally for Europe in the Middle East, a region that now poses some very hard questions for Europe. Most importantly, we share the same humanist aspirations for our countries. This makes us part of the same family, and I hope this allows me to speak openly and honestly.
Building on this kinship, recent months have seen a flourishing of diplomatic meetings between Israel and the EU. Before the summer, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met High Representative Federica Mogherini in Jerusalem and once again in New York. Last month, the prime minister also hosted European Council President Donald Tusk in Jerusalem. I was there to witness it and the mood was professional and forward looking.
The prime minister was unequivocal about the direction of our country. Israel remains committed to a two-state solution. Two states for two peoples, this continues to be our end objective. He has since repeatedly expressed his desire to find concrete ways forward, in direct talks with the Palestinian leadership, which he said could take place in Brussels, Jerusalem or Ramallah itself.
In turn, EU leaders made clear their strong willingness to help advance the Middle East peace process. This is important. We welcome Europe’s aspiration and help to achieve this objective.
To make progress, however, the closest form of cooperation is necessary, and this needs to be based on trust, openness and impartiality.
The labeling of Israeli products will not contribute to this end. We are being told the economic impact of such labeling should be small. And the step is supposedly not meant as a boycott. But seeing European shops label Jewish products brings back some very painful memories for many Israelis. And it stings that we are being singled out for special treatment. While we fully respect that the EU needs to apply its own acquis, this makes it very hard to escape the conclusion that this is a political step, with the distinctly political message that Israel is to be blamed and punished for the stagnation of the peace process.
In Israel it is hard to explain how this could conceivably help kick-start peace talks. Nor does it appear to be a timely message. The Middle East is ablaze, with wars raging in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. These wars have become magnets for Daesh and Hezbollah Islamists, engaged in the random slaughter of civilians. We are facing an unprecedented refugee crisis. And in these times the EU sees fit, under the guise of consumer protection law, to slap quasi-sanctions on Israel, the only state in the region whose constitution embraces and defends Europe’s own values?
For Israel the key to a two-states-for-two-peoples solution lies in obtaining ironclad guarantees for its security. What we hope to receive from our partners abroad is some help in finding these. Security is and will always remain our Gold Standard. The problem we now face is that in a region awash with blood and rife with sectarianism, this is more difficult to achieve. Already, ISIL-affiliated terror cells are operating from within the Gaza Strip.
There are other challenges the EU could help tackle. The Palestinian leadership remains hesitant, divided and unwilling to come to the table. Netanyahu has now repeatedly offered to hold direct talks with President Abbas on a two-states-for-two-peoples solution, without setting preconditions. He did so as recently as the U.N. General Assembly in New York. But what has happened? Instead of engaging with us directly, what we are getting from President Abbas are bold flag-waving statements and other unilateral shenanigans.
What is needed is for the EU to help persuade Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to agree to direct talks. Without such talks there can be no progress at all, not even a beginning. What is needed is for the EU to use its clout to help end the spate of attacks against Israeli citizens of the last few weeks, amongst others by getting Palestinian leaders to tone down their divisive rhetoric. What is needed is for the EU to do more to help disarm Gaza, whilst aiding the Palestinian Authority in regaining control over the Strip.
While labeling legislation is a red herring, a painful distraction, the latter steps would enhance the prospects of success in tangible and practical ways. There is no doubt Europe is capable of making a significant contribution to the Middle East peace process. But we need to grasp the nettle, not start another smoke and mirrors game. Moving the stalled peace process forward will be difficult enough as it is.
David Walzer is Israel’s Ambassador to the EU and NATO. This article originally appeared on www.politico.com.