Despite its decade-old membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO), which aims to liberalize international commerce, Israel has never filed a formal complaint against the Arab boycott of the Jewish state, nor does it have any plans to do so in the immediate future, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
Instead, Israel has opted for what one government official in Jerusalem termed "a more discreet method to try and open channels of communication," maintaining that a behind-the-scenes approach would ultimately prove more effective in contending with the embargo.
Established in 1995, the WTO has 149 member countries, all of whom are obligated to refrain from engaging in discriminatory trade practices, such as boycotts, against fellow member states.
By regulation, a country that believes a member is not abiding by its WTO commitments is entitled to lodge a formal complaint against that member. Thereafter, a multi-stage process, known as the dispute settlement system, is launched.
According to a WTO spokesman, some 340 complaints have been filed by various countries over the years. These include cases such as Thailand contesting European preferential tariffs on tuna imports, and a Pakistani challenge regarding yarn exports to the US.
A Post review of all WTO grievances filed since the start of the organization found that Israel has never submitted a single complaint on any subject, including the trade embargo enforced by various Arab countries. In addition, an examination of statements made by Israeli officials at the WTO revealed that they have not mentioned the Arab boycott of the Jewish state in their remarks.
"Thus far, we have never used the [WTO] mechanism for bringing a formal complaint [against Arab member states]," the official confirmed. "The boycott right now is on the defensive as a result of working behind the scenes."
The official said that Israel had quietly been raising boycott-related issues with the secretariat of the WTO. "We have spoken to the director-general of the WTO and raised concerns about certain countries," he noted, though he refused to identify which countries had been the subject of Israel's "concerns."
A WTO spokesman would not comment on the official's remarks.
Another Israeli official involved in trade matters said that filing a complaint with the WTO "is a right that we reserve to use when we have a case," but he suggested that the process of doing so was a "substantial and bothersome task.
"Of course, we want all countries to abide by their WTO commitments," the official said, "but resorting to the dispute settlement mechanism will not yield the results we would like.
"We do not wish to politicize the WTO," he added.
Conversely, US officials have publicly stated that if an Arab country were to enforce a boycott against Israel, the Jewish state would be entitled to take the matter up with the WTO, and that Washington would likely back such a move.
In written responses to questions raised by members of the US Senate Finance Committee released earlier this week, US Deputy Trade Representative Susan Schwab said that Saudi Arabia, which joined the WTO late last year, had assured Washington that it was not enforcing an anti-Israel boycott.
However, Schwab told the senators, if Israel believes that the Saudis are continuing to implement a boycott, they can bring a case against Riyadh to the WTO and "the United States could support such a case."
But a senior Ministry of Industry and Trade official told the Post that Israel had no immediate plans to file complaints with the WTO regarding the Arab boycott, saying that to do so would amount to "politicizing the organization.
"In the past two or three years," the official said, "we have liberalized all of our trade regulations concerning all WTO member countries, regardless of whether they have diplomatic relationships with Israel or not."
These include various Arab countries hostile to Israel, he said. "We treat them as any other WTO members."
Asked to explain Israel's approach, the official said, "We acted unilaterally with the hope it would be appreciated by them [Arab countries], recognized and reciprocated."
The official maintained that this strategy has led to progress with several Arab countries, but refused to identify the nature of the progress or the countries to which he was referring.
While the official ruled out any short-term change in Israeli policy, he added that, "We expect them to abide by their commitments, and we reserve our right to take any steps we see as necessary."