President Barack Obama rose to the occasion Wednesday night, Jan. 27, when he spoke at the Righteous Among the Nations celebration at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. Rarely has the president been more eloquent or more forceful than when he declared that Army Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds, one of the night’s four honorees, was right in declaring, “We are all Jews.”
“Anti-Semitism is a distillation, an expression of an evil that runs through so much of human history, and if we do not answer that, we do not answer any other form of evil,” Obama said, going on to defend Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state and to reject policy criticism that warps into a denial of that fundamental right.
The Obama who spoke that night — who emphasized the responsibility of people of faith everywhere to stand up for one another and who noted that Israelis and Palestinians alike must have empathy for and make common cause with the outsider — deserves to be counted among Israel’s best friends.
Unfortunately, as we discussed in this space two weeks ago after listening to his final State of the Union address, the president is paying only fleeting attention to foreign policy in general and Israel in particular as the start of the presidential primaries and caucuses begins the countdown to his political retirement.
Thus, just four days before he delivered those moving words at the Israeli Embassy, he silently allowed U.S. Customs and Border Protection to reinstitute 20-year-old, never-enforced regulations on the labeling of goods produced in the West Bank.
Henceforth, those products must be labeled “West Bank,” “West Bank/Gaza,” “West Bank/Gaza Strip,” “West Bank and Gaza,” or “West Bank and Gaza Strip.”
“It is not acceptable to mark the aforementioned goods with the words ‘Israel,’ ‘Made in Israel,’ ‘Occupied Territories-Israel,’ or any variation thereof,” the customs memo reads.
It’s true that the memo restores a policy created in 1995 as part of the Oslo Accords. It’s perhaps true that Customs and Border Protection felt the need to issue the memo in response to complaints about the lack of enforcement and did not bother to let the White House or the State Department know about a bureaucratic decision.
It’s also possible, however, that customs officials recognized the sensitivity of anything involving Israel and notified the proper contacts higher in the administration, only to be met with the silence of indifference. It’s one thing to stand up for Israel in a ceremony commemorating the end of Holocaust; it’s another thing to protect Israel from international economic threats.
The practical effect is minimal. The only people who care about labels of origin are people who don’t need those labels to know and respond to the products’ origin.
But symbolically the United States, with the president’s acceptance if not approval, has chosen to line up with the European Union in labeling Israeli products made in the West Bank differently from those made within the pre-1967 borders. It’s a policy Israel has fought in Europe for conveying a conclusion about the status of the West Bank that must be resolved in peace talks, not by bureaucratic fiat.
Again, the U.S. message to Israel is clear: You chose your own path away from the peace process; now you can walk that path alone.