Israel Up in Arms Over U.S. Labeling ‘Scheme’

YERUSHALAYIM -
General view of the Samaria settlement of Ariel, on January 17, 2014. Photo by Flash 90.
View of the city of Ariel, in the Shomron. (Flash90)

Israeli officials were up in arms Wednesday over a report by Channel Two revealing that the U.S. had, without officially announcing it was doing so, joined with the European Union in labeling products made by Jews in Yehudah and Shomron as being “made in the West Bank.” The government, meanwhile, has been trying to downplay the matter, in order not to further aggravate the already tense relations between the government of Binyamin Netanyahu and the State Department.

The trigger for the current tension is the alleged reissuing of a directive from 1995 that U.S. customs authorities have only recently begun enforcing, in which products sold in the U.S. not made in Israel proper are labeled “made in the West Bank.” A report on Channel One on the matter last month raised the ire of business and government officials who were asked to comment.

In response, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement that this new/old rule was not designed to encourage a boycott of products made by Jews in Yehudah and Shomron. The rule states that products made in Yehudah, Shomron or Gaza should be listed on customs import rolls as “made in West Bank/Gaza,” and not “made in Israel.” As such, the officials said, the rule does not distinguish between products made in Israeli towns or Arab villages. “This is a reissue of a technical customs rule that was first issued 21 years ago. Regarding that, we are in touch with the U.S. administration in order to understand the regulation and how it affects us,” the statement said.

But the Channel Two report Tuesday quoted officials of the International Law Forum, an Israeli group that deals with legal issues, as saying that this was not quite true. After studying the matter, the group said that it had discovered in documents that the customs rule was supposed to apply only to products made in Palestinian Authority-controlled areas; products made by Jews in Area C of Yehudah and Shomron, under Israeli civilian and military control, were to be labeled as “made in Israel.”

As such, the report said, customs officials – or some other group – had single-handedly decided to change American policy and join the labeling efforts of the European Union, “which at least has been forthright about its intentions, providing Israel with an opportunity to respond. This appears to be a ‘policy coup’ by someone or some group, instituted without the approval of Congress,” which has the final word on matters of international trade, said the report.

In response, Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan told Channel Two that Israel would file a protest with the American authorities. “The U.S. is a good friend of Israel’s but we too have our red lines. Labeling products means a delegitimization of Jewish communities in Yehudah and Shomron. This is not the way friends act with each other. It appears that something incorrect is going on here. I intend to bring this up with Vice President Biden,” who is due to visit Israel in the coming days.

In a statement, the Yesha Council said that “unfortunately we once again find that the administration of President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry are acting in an unfair manner against Jewish settlers. Now we are finding out that the policy the U.S. has adopted of labeling products contradicts the declared policy of the U.S. Clearly there is an intention to harm Israel in this move. Several questions need to be answered: Who ordered this, and why? We expect our friend, the U.S., to change this policy and to investigate until it is clear who is behind this serious matter.”