JERUSALEM — The chief executive of a French telecommunications company made an extraordinary personal pilgrimage on Friday to apologize to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, after the executive’s recent declaration that he wanted to disentangle from an Israeli mobile provider prompted a diplomatic uproar.
Stéphane Richard, the chairman of the French company, Orange, said that his statement was “distorted and misunderstood” as part of the growing movement to boycott companies that operate in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.
As he had earlier, he said on Friday that the comment he made last week about wishing he could end Orange’s licensing agreement with Partner Communications of Israel “tomorrow morning” were purely a business matter.
“I regret deeply this controversy, and I want to make totally clear that Orange as a company has never supported and will never support any kind of boycott against Israel,” Mr. Richard told Mr. Netanyahu on Friday. “Israel is a fantastic place to be in the digital industry, and of course, our will is to strengthen and to keep on investing here.”
The contretemps over Orange has shifted the boycott conversation in Israel and elsewhere. The highest-profile campaigns before now have mainly taken aim at factories located in West Bank settlements, but the target this time, Orange’s affiliate Partner Communications, is based in Israel proper with only a fraction of its operations in the settlements. That has led to concern that almost all Israeli businesses could face similar challenges, and it has prompted angry claims from Mr. Netanyahu and others that all boycotts are anti-Semitic attempts to undermine the Jewish state’s very existence.
The prime minister initially denounced Mr. Richard’s statement as “miserable” and rejected his initial offer to apologize to Israel’s ambassador to France, insisting that Mr. Richard must come to Israel instead. The two men stood together Friday morning in front of four Israeli flags.
“It’s no secret that the remarks you made last week were widely seen as an attack on Israel, and so your visit here is an opportunity to set the record straight,” the prime minister said. “We seek a genuine and secure peace with our Palestinian neighbors, but that can only be achieved through direct negotiations between the parties without preconditions. It will not be achieved through boycotts and through threats of boycotts.”
Omar Barghouti, a founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, called Mr. Richard “obsequious” and said his company’s decision to curtail its deal with Partner in 2025 was more important than what he “is intimidated into saying.” Mr. Barghouti said the boycott was “reaching a tipping point, mainly because of its compelling moral argument and strategic campaigning.”
Stéphane Richard in Tel Aviv on Thursday.
Also on Friday, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported that KLP Kapitalforvaltning, a Norweigian insurance giant, had dropped two building-materials companies from its investment portfolio because of their activities in West Bank quarries, saying “this activity constitutes an unacceptable risk of violating fundamental ethical norms.”
Mr. Richard’s outburst in Cairo and subsequent about-face has proven to be a watershed moment for the decade-old boycott movement, if only for the backlash it has provoked. Israeli politicians have rushed to microphones to pledge allegiance against boycotts, and many American officials and Jewish leaders have joined the chorus, in some cases obscuring their criticism of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians.
Mr. Netanyahu pledged $26 million to fight back, and Sheldon Adelson, the conservative casino mogul, reportedly raised $20 million in private donations at a meeting in Las Vegas. Ayelet Shaked, Israel’s new far-right justice minister, said she had instructed her international department to “prepare a plan of legal steps” against the boycott movement.
Industry and agriculture based in the settlements account for only a small portion of Israel’s total economic output and exports. But Israel’s broader economy tends to blur the Green Line that separates pre-1967 Israel from the territory it captured in the war that year. Like Partner Communications, many if not most Israel companies — chain restaurants and stores, insurance providers, banks — serve the roughly 600,000 Israelis who now live beyond the line.
“If you’re a consumer business, are you going to write them off? I don’t think so,” said Jon Medved, a venture capitalist who has seeded scores of start-ups. “Everyone has to do business there.”
Uriel Lynn, president of the federation of Israeli chambers of commerce, was one of several business leaders who said the boycott campaigns have had no economic effect, “only a moral impact.” Even so, several Israeli executives would only agree to discuss the issue off the record, for fear that any mention of their companies in that context could put them in the cross hairs.
Potential investors from abroad face a difficult calculus, Gary Shapiro, chief executive of the Consumer Electronics Associations, told attendees at a conference this week: “Is it worth it to be in Israel when there’s a risk I could be boycotted?”
Allan McArtor, chairman of Airbus, said any company pauses to consider whether it can “develop a market or markets among the gulf states at the same time as Israel.”
“I don’t think we need to put any sugar on it,” Mr. McArtor said. “Commerce is attracted to stability, and stability can only happen if you have peace, so the missing ingredient for Israel’s dramatic growth is this peace issue.”
Mr. Barghouti, the boycott advocate, claimed that other international companies had succumbed to pressure. He cited G4S, a British security company, that announced it would not renew its main contract with Israel’s prison system when it expires in 2017, and Veolia, a French company that sold its interest in Jersulaem’s light rail system. (Veolia executives said that move was part of a global sell-off of its transportation interests.)
Mr. Barghouti said the boycott of Orange “will continue until it ends its involvement in illegal Israeli projects.”
But Mr. Medved, an incessant booster of Israeli business around the world, said Orange would suffer more than Israel would from Mr. Richard’s seeming flirtation with the boycott movement. “This guy stepped in it in a major way, and I think there’s going to be repercussions,” he said. “Israel’s the second-most important source of technology innovation in the world. You boycott Israel, and you poke yourself in the eye.”
Hence Mr. Richard’s apology tour. He flew to Israel on a corporate jet and spent Thursday visiting technology concerns where Orange has a stake. At one company, he tried on goggles with yellow-green lenses that double as a screen.
And his public relations office sent reporters a booklet highlighting “the Orange Group’s presence in Israel,” including previous visits Mr. Richard made to the country and recent agreements with Ben Gurion University and Israel’s chief scientist.
“In Israel, we have been active for over 20 years,” Mr. Richard told Mr. Netanyahu on Friday, according to a company statement. “Orange’s vision is to connect people — that is the opposite of any involvement in boycott or in political controversy. It is therefore ludicrous to think that our business development plans in Israel are in any way the result of political pressure.”
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(via NY Times)