Labeling Israeli products, or formalizing theft of Palestinian land?

FILE PHOTO: A view shows the Israeli settlement of Psagot in the Israeli-occupied West Bank February 13, 2020. REUTERS/Ammar Awad/File Photo

On November 19, the U.S. Department of State issued a press statement with the stated objective of announcing new guidelines on country of origin markings for Israeli and Palestinian goods. However, the announcement, and the essence of a letter to the same effect that four U.S. lawmakers sent to President Trump three days earlier, have implications — all fully intended — that go well beyond that.

At issue in the first instance was the intent to do away with a longstanding U.S. policy that required products of Israeli settlements to be labeled as West Bank products. The November 19 announcement specifically requires that moving forward, the product label for exports to the United States should read “Israel,” “Product of Israel,” or “Made in Israel.” Needless to say, however, this is not a simple case of labeling products. Rather, it is about nothing if not about labeling territory. Indeed, this is made abundantly clear by the rationale that the announcement itself provided as a basis for this policy shift, namely: to align practice with “our reality-based foreign policy approach.”

It is about nothing if not about labeling territory.

Never mind that, to Palestinians, this grandiose formulation of U.S. foreign policy doctrine justifiably appears to have been invented specifically to chip away at our rights and undermine our interests. What real reality must have inspired this? Before exploring that, it may help to note that the announcement made no reference to the Israeli settlements. Rather, it stipulated that the affected goods were those produced by “all producers within areas where Israel exercises the relevant authorities — most notably Area C under the Oslo Accords.” (“Area C” refers to areas that comprise approximately 60% of the West Bank that were supposed to be gradually transferred to Palestinian jurisdiction beginning in July 1997.) Another point worth noting, which helps illuminate the real motive underlying the issuance of this new policy directive at this juncture, is the statement’s stipulation that goods produced in Gaza were to be labeled as such, and that the “West Bank/Gaza” label would no longer be acceptable.

The product-labeling controversy originated with a legitimate effort aimed at delegitimizing the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which are nearly universally considered illegal under international law. But a question arises as to why the announcement did not limit the scope of the policy change to the settlements themselves; instead, the shift covers at least Area C in its entirety. Even for the alleged purposes of the policy change, such a broadening brings in some tricky complications, including the possibility that the change could be applied to products produced in Palestinian communities in the designated area.

It is not unreasonable to suspect that such complications were judged to be too minor for the Trump administration. The main objective of the policy change is acting on the annexation that President Trump’s “vision of peace and prosperity” had promised. Problematically, the annexation to be secured under the guise of product labeling would apply to more than twice the 30% of the landmass of the West Bank that was provided for under the said vision. A number of considerations would seem to lend credence to this conclusion.

First, having failed to deliver on its pledge to act on annexation by the self-imposed deadline of July 1, 2020 — and notwithstanding its commitment to postpone such action in the context of its normalization agreement with the United Arab Emirates — the government of Benjamin Netanyahu was plausibly looking for ways to advance annexation against the backdrop of two risk factors. On the one hand, not acting at all risked missing the opportunity to carry out any annexation once the new U.S. administration took office. But, on the other hand, acting too aggressively during the transition in the United States carried the obvious risk of the Israeli government getting started on the wrong foot with the Biden administration. Second, the announcement characterizes the territory whose products are to be of Israeli origin as “most notably Area C” — read: not Area C exclusively. This means the policy shift would go a long way toward satisfying those elements of the Israeli body politic who are opposed even to the flimsy concept of borders outlined in Trump’s vision, within which they consider the land to be wholly Israel’s. Third, the whole policy shift is being presented as a mundane technical exercise, and was apparently considered unlikely to be reversed by the Biden administration.

This appears to be the real reality underlying the Trump administration’s most recent application of its so-called reality-based approach to foreign policy, as it pertains to the U.S.-Israel relationship. Unfortunately, it is a reality that has been an immediate product and natural consequence of Israel’s colonial expansionism and relentlessly oppressive occupation. And it is even about more than merely considering most of the West Bank as part of Israel; it is also about completely eliminating the possibility of any meaningful statehood for the Palestinians on the territory Israel occupied in 1967. For, other than wishing to signal the permanence of Gaza’s separation from the West Bank, why else would the announcement devote any space to requiring that goods produced in Gaza be labeled as such, and banning the use of the “West Bank/Gaza” label?

For all the Trump administration’s disregard for longstanding U.S. positions on matters of Palestinian statehood, it would be a huge mistake to consider that all was well but for Trump’s selective and highly cynical application of the so-called reality-based approach to the Middle East peace process. Therefore, there is a compelling case for a restoration of norms, if not a complete reset, under the new administration.

An early annulment of this policy — the most recent in a long series of transgressions away from norms — would go a long way toward imparting credibility to a much-needed restoration. Indeed, it should also be compelled by the Democratic Party’s endorsement of the two-state solution, and the importance that President-Elect Biden has consistently attached to preserving the viability of that solution concept.