Cooper’s decisive step in developing Labour’s Middle East policy

Yvette Cooper has taken a decisive step in the development of Labour’s approach towards Middle East peace, reports Seph Brown, consultant for Prosper Palestine.

Seph Brown is a consultant for Prosper Palestine, an international campaign backed by the Palestinian Authority to lobby governments on the economic and political effects of illegal Israel settlements on the West Bank

As negotiations falter over a freeze in illegal Israeli settlement construction on the West Bank, shadow foreign secretary Yvette Cooper has taken a decisive step in the development of Labour’s approach towards peace in the Middle East. Earlier this month, Ms Cooper called for all products from illegal settlements to face mandatory labelling before entering the UK, outlining their exact place of origin.

She said:

The continued building of settlements in the Occupied Territories is illegal and a serious obstacle to peace.

“If EU member states can speak with one voice, including guidance to retailers on produce from settlements in the West Bank, it will send a strong signal on how important this is.

“Consumers should be able to choose what produce they buy. That includes knowing exactly where it came from and having access to all markets, including Gaza whose population is still unable to export to the wider world.”

Aside from the Guardian and Israel’s Jerusalem Post, the story gained little traction. This is particularly frustrating since Ms Cooper presents one of the few sensible approaches towards Israel in light of prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s refusal to halt construction on internationally recognised occupied land.

President Obama’s preferred tactic of incentivising a freeze – including an offer of $3 billion worth of F-35 fighter aircraft, and agreeing to veto a tricky discussion regarding Palestinian independence at the UN –  utterly failed. The Israelis responded with increasing construction in East Jerusalem.

Ms Cooper’s view, therefore, that engagement with Israel must be balanced with the exertion of firm political pressure makes sense and is the natural development of the sensible Middle East policy which the UK and EU has been slowly moving towards.

In December 2009, then environment secretary Hilary Benn’s department issued guidance on the voluntary labelling of goods, differentiating between “Israeli settlement produce” and “Palestinian produce”. Up until then, foods were labelled “Produce of the West Bank”.

In February this year the European Court of Justice ruled unequivocally that goods produced in settlements are produced outside Israel and are not to be defined as Israeli. This sounded a significant clarification of the EC-Israel Association Agreement of 2000, which gave preferential treatment to Israeli goods.

It is likely that Ms Cooper and the Labour party will be accused of inciting a ‘boycott’ against Israeli goods as a whole. It clearly is not. Enabling consumers to distinguish between purchasing products from illegal Israeli settlements and those produced by Palestinians in the West Bank is a far cry away from a boycott of all Israeli goods. Instead it recognises that economic action can target a root problem in the peace process – illegal settlements.

Foreign ministers and leaders around the world are united in agreement that Israel’s continued settlement on occupied land is not only illegal under international law, but an unavoidable physical and geographical obstacle to peace via the creation of two independent states.

On Monday, the prime minister told the Conservative Friends of Israel that:

“… above all, there is the need for an end to the expansion of settlements.”

However, unlike Ms Cooper, Mr Cameron and his front bench colleagues have not developed a strategy to push this agenda.

The new international campaign, Prosper Palestine, seeks to act as a resource for NGOs, think tanks, officials and decision makers who wish to see an end to settlement construction and the creation of a viable Palestinian state. It makes very little sense to continue to financially and economically support the very settlements which undermine the overall political route to peace.

Ms Cooper’s recognition of this argument is a welcome shift in policy from the new shadow foreign secretary. Given the paucity of coverage for her announcement, however, it seems that rallying supporters on a broader international level could prove a more difficult task.

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