EU preparing to label products exported from Israeli settlements

The European Union is moving forward with a set of guidelines for labeling products coming out of West Bank settlements as more grassroots attempts at sanctions and divestment are gaining momentum internationally.

Sebastian Scheiner/AP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset, Israel's parliament in Jerusalem, in December.

The European Union is preparing new guidelines that would require Israel to label products made in West Bank settlements if they are exported to the 28-nation bloc, EU officials said Tuesday.

The move is the latest sign of international discontent with Israeli construction of settlements on occupied lands claimed by the Palestinians. And while the work is expected to take weeks, it comes as a grassroots movement promoting boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel is gaining steam.

Israeli officials reject the European labeling plan, saying it would amount to a type of boycott and would discourage the Palestinians from pursuing peace talks.

According to one of the EU officials, the bloc's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, told European foreign ministers last month that work is "underway" and that a set of guidelines will be "finalized in the near future." The officials spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were discussing internal EU affairs.

There have been other recent actions that have underscored the controversial settlement issue.

In recent weeks, Israel fended off a Palestinian attempt to expel Israel from FIFA, the global soccer federation. Britain's national student union endorsed the anti-Israel boycott movement, and the chief executive of French telecom giant Orange said he would like to sever business ties with Israel. The CEO, Stephane Richard, has since tried to backtrack from his comments, but the uproar over the so-called BDS movement has not subsided.

An EU labeling effort would deliver an especially tough diplomatic blow, since Western European countries are among Israel's closest allies. Europe is Israel's largest trade market, though products from settlements, including wines, cosmetics and agricultural products, make up a tiny percentage of exports.

Pressure has been growing on Israel since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new coalition government took office last month. The coalition is dominated by pro-settler hard-liners who oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state. Netanyahu, who voiced opposition to Palestinian independence during the election campaign, has softened his comments in recent weeks, but the international community has reacted with skepticism to his calls for renewed peace talks.

The Palestinians claim the West Bank and east Jerusalem — territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war — as parts of a future independent state. The international community opposes Israeli settlements in the two areas, saying they make it increasingly difficult to divide the land between two countries. More than 550,000 Jewish settlers now live on occupied land.

Israeli officials are likely to use the coming months to lobby EU officials to abandon the labeling plan for settlement products.

"We are in close contact and dialogue with the European Union regarding a variety of issues," Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said Tuesday. "We have been conveying our positions, and we hope they will be accepted by the EU."

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