Opinion

The E.U.’s Targeting of Israel Awakens a Tragic Anti-Semitic Past

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A Palestinian works alongside an Israeli at a textile factory in the Industrial Park of the West Bank Jewish settlement of Barkan, southwest of Nablus, November 8. Reuters/Baz Ratner

European shoppers will not see Tibetan products labeled “Made in Chinese-Occupied Tibet” or certain Cypriot goods marked “Made in Turkish-Occupied Cyprus.” Nor will they see tags on items imported from the more than 200 disputed territories worldwide. From this month on, only one country will be branded on European grocery shelves: Israel.

The decision of the European Union (E.U.) to mark all Israeli products from Judea and Samaria—the West Bank—and the Golan Heights represents a return to the darkest chapters in the continent’s history. The move hurts most the very people it is intended to help. And it will cost the E.U. the key diplomatic role long sought by its leaders.

By singling out the Jewish State, the E.U. evokes its 2,000-year history of anti-Semitism, which was often characterized by the labeling of Jewish goods. For Israelis, at least, European labels immediately recall the word Jude painted on Jewish stores by the Nazis. But Israelis also know that the marking of Israeli products from the West Bank means they will be boycotted—what market will even stock them?—and opens the door to the embargo of anything made-in-Israel.

For that reason, Israeli leaders from both the left and the right have denounced the E.U.’s resolution. “I vigorously oppose this harmful and unnecessary move,” Isaac Herzog, head of the Zionist Camp (formerly, the Labor Party) declared. “It serves only one purpose—the continuation of hate and conflict in the area. Labeling products is a violent act of extremists who want to worsen the situation even more.”

It is also damaging to those about whom Europeans supposedly care. Tens of thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank are employed by Israeli-run firms. Such enterprises serve as vivid examples of coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians and hold out a hopeful vision for the future. But the E.U.’s labeling campaign will force many of these businesses to close down and lay off their workers.

Similar European boycotts helped bring about the relocation of the SodaStream factory that employed 500 Palestinians and payed them rates far above the West Bank average. SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum described the plant as “building bridges between us and the Palestinians. I just don’t see how it would help the cause of the Palestinians if we fired them.” Birnbaum’s view has been confirmed by the recent wave of terrorist attacks against Israelis, virtually none of which have been carried out by Palestinians employed by Jews.

But the E.U.’s decision not only harms Israelis and Palestinians, it also undermines Europe. For decades, European statesmen have tried to play a major role in the Middle East peace process, only to be side-lined by the United States. Yet now, with America retreating militarily and diplomatically from the region, Europe has the opportunity to fill the vacuum and serve as an even-handed mediator.

How can Europe be even-handed when it labels only Israeli-made goods from the disputed West Bank and not Palestinian products? How can the E.U. justify ignoring previous Israeli offers of Palestinian statehood in the West Bank—tabled in 2000 and 2008—which were rejected by Palestinian leaders? And how can the E.U. overlook the West Bank Palestinian Authority’s refusal to negotiate with Israel over most of the past six years and its open promotion of religious-based terror?

Tellingly, the E.U.’s resolution relates not only to the West Bank but also to the Golan Heights, where there are no Palestinians and which can no longer be traded to Syria for peace. Syria no longer exists. Does the E.U. want Israel to return the Golan to the Islamic State militant group (ISIS)?

Instead of revisiting its tragic anti-Semitic past, impoverishing Palestinians, and disqualifying itself as an equitable mediator, the E.U. could make immense contributions to peace. It could gain credibility with Israelis by welcoming difficult concessions, such as limiting Israeli construction to the major settlement blocks. Europeans could assist Palestinians in the building of stable, transparent institutions that will form the foundations of any future viable state. And Europe could lend legitimacy to Israel’s presence in the Golan and so keep ISIS, Iran, and Hezbollah from extending their influence south toward Jordan and Egypt.

The European Union has a historic opportunity to make a real change in the Middle East that will redound to the benefit of all of its 28 member states. That chance must not be squandered by a prejudicial and harmful decision which, on November 29, led Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to ban further E.U. involvement in the peace process.

Rather than branding Israeli products for its shoppers, the E.U. should be positioning itself for a constructive role in the world.

Michael B. Oren, formerly Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. and a member of Knesset (the Israeli parliament), is the author of Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide.

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