Obama’s State Department Struggles to Explain Position On Israeli Labeling

The European Union has issued guidelines requiring products of “settlements” on the West Bank to be so labeled, presumably so that European consumers can avoid them:

The labeling rules apply to fresh fruit and vegetables, wine, honey, olive oil, eggs, poultry, organic products and cosmetics coming from Israeli-owned businesses and farms outside the state’s original borders.

Rather than “product of Israel,” these goods must be labeled with the term “settlement,” or “its equivalent,” the rules say, as in “product of West Bank (Israeli settlement).” Goods from Palestinian-owned businesses can say “product of Palestine” or “product of West Bank (Palestinian product).”

Israeli products are sold in Europe with no, or very low, tariffs, but products of the West Bank will not be entitled to the same treatment. Israel’s government has protested the new labeling guidelines, while Hamas hailed them as “a step in the right direction.”

On Tuesday, the State Department’s Deputy Spokesman, Mark Toner, was asked for the administration’s position on the guidelines in his regular State Department briefing. What ensued was a comical display of incompetence and cowardice. The following colloquy looks long, but can be skimmed quickly. I had to reproduce the whole thing to convey the Department’s ineptitude:

QUESTION: … And that is the EU this week or very soon is expected to begin its requirement for products made in settlements to be labeled as such. You have – the Administration has opposed this in the past, and I’m just wondering if you guys have made your opposition to it clear recently.

MR TONER: Not sure when the last time – I mean, look, we’re not – there’s – it hasn’t been announced yet, this —

QUESTION: Yeah, but it’s expected to.

MR TONER: It is expected to.

QUESTION: And it’s expected to move on the Hill.

MR TONER: I know. I know that we’re – and we’re aware that it’s going to publish a note soon about its consumer guidelines on product origin labeling, which I believe several countries are already following. It’s my understanding, though, that this issue is still under discussion within the – within European Commission, rather, and I would refer you to the EU for the latest. So I’m not going to speculate about it.
You know where our – where we stand on this —

QUESTION: No, but that’s what I want to know. And I don’t want to be referred to the EU to find out what the U.S. thinks about something.

MR TONER: Oh, what our – okay, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you were – I thought you were asking for —


MR TONER: Apologize.

QUESTION: But I want to know, one, if you’re still –- I mean, I presume you’re still opposed to it —


QUESTION: — but why it is you are opposed to it or why you are still opposed to it, and whether or not it has been raised by the Administration recently with the EU.

MR TONER: So – okay. First thing is our position on boycotts targeting the state of Israel has not changed. We oppose efforts to isolate to delegitimize the state of Israel. That said, the longstanding bipartisan position on – of the United States on Israeli settlements has also not changed. We believe settlements are illegitimate and are harmful to prospects to peace for peace and to Israel’s long-term security. That said, if Israel continues to expand settlement activity, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to – if some in the international community pursue steps to limit commercial relations with the settlements, and this underscores the urgent need for Israel to change its policies with regard to settlements.

QUESTION: Would you —
QUESTION: So hold on a second. Wait, wait. I’m still struggling to find a coherent position on whether —


QUESTION: — the labeling is a good thing or a bad thing, according to you guys.

MR TONER: So I’m – we’re not going to speak to something that has not taken place yet. A decision has not been made, and that’s what was my point about this is still a matter under discussion in the European Commission.
On boycotts, we’re against boycotts. On settlements, we’re against settlements.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR TONER: But – and my last point is the “but” – that Israel should – that it shouldn’t be a surprise to Israel that some in the international community pursue steps to limit commercial relations with the settlements.

QUESTION: In other words, you think it’s a bad thing, but it’s Israel’s fault?

MR TONER: I think it’s a reality. I mean, I think —

QUESTION: It is a bad thing, but it’s Israel’s fault for this to – I’m trying to find out —

MR TONER: We – yeah, yeah, sure – we disagree with —

QUESTION: Do you think —

MR TONER: — we disagree with the policy of settlements —

QUESTION: Yes, I understand that.

MR TONER: — which – you understand that. All I’m saying is, I’m making the observation that it should not come as a surprise that there are others in the international community who pursue steps to limit commercial relations. I’m just laying that out there.

QUESTION: Is it that you regard this —
QUESTION: I know, but —

QUESTION: — do you regard this as a step to limit commercial relations, the simple labeling?

MR TONER: Well, it’s labeling to differentiate Israeli – Israel products from those from the settlements.

QUESTION: So you think that that’s inevitably going to lead to —

MR TONER: Not inevitably, but it could.

QUESTION: But does that mean that you – that – so you’re not saying that the labeling is a boycott which you would oppose; you’re saying to Israel, don’t be surprised if countries do this? I just – I’m trying to find out if the Administration has a position on the labeling.

MR TONER: Yeah, yeah, that’s okay, that’s okay, that’s okay. That’s okay. That’s okay.

QUESTION: Do you think that it is the same thing as a boycott, which you would oppose?

MR TONER: So current consumer guidelines on product origin labeling is what we’re talking about the EU doing. Issue’s still under discussion. But as I just said to Arshad, it’s not a boycott per se, but could be taken as a boycott since it identifies products from —

QUESTION: So you oppose it?

MR TONER: We oppose boycotts. We —

QUESTION: No, but I’m asking about the labeling.

MR TONER: We oppose any – I would say any action that could be taken – again, this is – action has not been taken yet but we oppose any boycott against Israel. I just said that very clearly.

QUESTION: I know you said that, but you won’t say whether you regard the labeling as a boycott.

MR TONER: Well, we don’t have – it is not a done deal yet. So it’s still under discussion.

QUESTION: Well, it’s also not a done deal that – you don’t want China to nuke Mongolia either, but you’ll say that. I mean —

MR TONER: No, we don’t.

QUESTION: No, exactly, but that’s a hypothetical as well. It’s something that hasn’t —
QUESTION: If you want to influence the EU’s debate, you should tell them what your opinion is before they make their decision —
QUESTION: I mean, have you been in touch with —

MR TONER: Of course we’ve been discussing this with the EU.

QUESTION: So – and you’ve told them that you think it’s a bad idea, or you’ve told them, well, we don’t really care, but we would prefer that you not take it to a boycott?

MR TONER: We’ve been clear about our position —

QUESTION: Well, you haven’t been clear with me. Has that —

MR TONER: — which is that —

QUESTION: Does anyone else in this room understand what the position is on the labeling?

MR TONER: We have been clear about our position, which is that we consider boycotts to be —

QUESTION: I know. That’s boycotts.

MR TONER: Yes, yes.

QUESTION: Do you consider the labeling to be a boycott?

MR TONER: I would say that – and I —

QUESTION: Or if it’s a step on the way to a boycott, would you – would you —

MR TONER: It’s a – it could be – it could be perceived as a step on the way.

QUESTION: So would you – so do you oppose it?
QUESTION: So it could be perceived as a step on the way —

MR TONER: To a boycott.

QUESTION: So would you – so do you oppose it? And are you willing to tell the Europeans that you think this is a bad idea and that you are opposed to it?

MR TONER: And I’ll just leave it at we’re still discussing it with them; they’re aware of our views. And then my final observation was that it shouldn’t be a surprise to Israel or to anyone that countries are looking at steps that could lead to boycotts or other efforts given their policy on settlements.

QUESTION: So just to summarize, you oppose boycotts but you will not say whether or not you oppose steps that could lead to boycotts?

MR TONER: Correct, correct. We just let this process play itself out.

QUESTION: So you said that the Europeans are aware of your position.




QUESTION: I hope it was made clear to them because it’s not clear to me at all still whether – what your position is on this. And I doubt that it’s —
QUESTION: (Off-mike.)
QUESTION: — I doubt that it’s clear to anyone in this room or anyone watching what your position is.

MR TONER: I just —

QUESTION: What harm is there in saying, “Look, we oppose this?”

MR TONER: There’s no harm, but it’s not – look, I mean, this is still a matter under discussion within the European Commission.


MR TONER: Let’s let that discussion take place. They’re aware of our views, generally speaking, about boycotts. They’re also aware of our views about settlements. All of that said, let’s let them conduct their own process here and then we’ll give our opinion on it.

QUESTION: But are they aware of your views on labeling?
QUESTION: Yeah, but by then, it’s too late. If they go ahead and do this and you have opposed it, then they’ve done something that you don’t like, and you haven’t weighed in or made your position clear publicly. So what good does it do to complain about it after the fact when you had the opportunity, and you’re being given the opportunity right now, to say whether you think, yeah, this is a good thing, or no, this is a horrible thing and will lead to boycott and de-legitimization?

MR TONER: I’m not – we’re not going to intervene into – in their process.

QUESTION: I missed the bit where he said they oppose the labeling, Said, I’m sorry.

MR TONER: No, we —

QUESTION: When did he say —
QUESTION: Yeah, I know. He didn’t say they oppose or oppose. But you’re saying that you have no position on products that come out of the settlements? Are they legitimate? They should be commercially available in any market?

MR TONER: I’m saying that – first of all, I’m saying we oppose boycotts. And frankly, anything that could be perceived as a boycott – which I think I said to Arshad – could be taken as a de facto by labeling them as such. But again, let’s let this process play itself out, although that clearly upsets Matt, and —

QUESTION: It doesn’t upset me. I’m just trying to find out what the position is. And if you are correct – in fact, what you said to Arshad, that you oppose steps that could lead to boycotts, that would mean then, according to your logic, that you would oppose the labeling. So why don’t you just come out and say that you oppose the labeling? Why pussyfoot around it? Why try to make it as vague as you possibly can? Let the world know what your position is if you think that it’s right, if you think that it’s correct.

MR TONER: I’m not going to speak on behalf of the European Union (inaudible) —

QUESTION: I’m not asking you to speak on behalf of the European Union. I’m asking you to speak on behalf of the United States.

MR TONER: And I – and we oppose boycotts, and we oppose settlements.

The ineptitude of American foreign policy under Barack Obama is nearly unfathomable.