Israeli product-labeling order targeted by GOP lawmaker

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( – Accusing the Obama administration of a new “effort to put daylight between the United States and Israel,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) on Monday introduced legislation aimed at annulling what he called a “nonsensical” directive on labeling goods produced in the territories disputed between Israel and the Palestinians.

“That directive plays right into the hands of those who are driving insidious efforts to boycott Israeli goods,” he said in a statement.

“There is an effort in some quarters around the globe to delegitimize Israel,” Cotton said. “Those behind it know they are too weak politically and too wrong morally to succeed in quick and dramatic fashion. They instead seek to achieve their aims gradually with incremental steps like labeling rules.”

The January 23 U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) directivereminds traders that goods produced by Israeli companies located in the West Bank or Gaza Strip may not be labeled “made in Israel.” Any that are will be “subject to an enforcement action.”

The State Department says it is merely a “reissuance” of 20 year-old guidance and does not constitute a change of policy.

But its appearance, just days after European Union (E.U.) ministers agreed that products made or grown in the disputed territories and destined for European markets no longer be labeled “made in Israel,” raised some eyebrows.

“This has been reported widely in the Israeli media this evening as a new policy and as some kind of rebuke to Israeli settlement policy,” a reporter pointed out to State Department spokesman Mark Toner at Thursday’s daily briefing.

Toner disputed that, saying the “guidance was simply a restatement of previous requirements.”

He said it was his understanding the guidance was reissued because of “allegations of mislabeling,” received from “around nine or ten” complainants.

“Many countries around the world do this kind of labeling. It in no way represents a boycott or anything like that,” Toner said. He recalled that the State Department said the same thing last month about the E.U. labeling move – that it did not constitute a boycott.

However Toner himself said last November, when the E.U. first approved the changes, that labeling products from settlements “could be perceived as a step on the way to a boycott.”

The U.S. directive does differ from the E.U. one in an important respect: In the U.S., a product from an Israeli settlement in the West Bank must be labeled “West Bank,” whereas in the E.U. the same item must now be labeled “West Bank (Israeli settlement)” or similar.

Cotton said the 20 year-old guidance now reissued by the CBP had rarely been enforced in the past.

“While some say the directive merely ‎restates an old labeling rule originally drafted 20 years ago with no intention to stigmatize Israel, the truth is the rule was lightly if ever enforced and serves little purpose today,” he said.

“Its vigorous enforcement now – coming after a concerted lobbying campaign on the part of groups looking to weaken Israel – will have the undeniable effect of isolating our closest friend in the Middle East and giving other nations an excuse to unfairly treat Israel in trade relations,” Cotton said.

“That is why I’m introducing a bill today to rescind the administration’s nonsensical rule and halt this latest effort to put daylight between the United States and Israel.”

— Written by Patrick Goodenough