RAMALLAH, West Bank — France is “firmly opposed” to a boycott of Israel, the French foreign minister said Friday, after the partly state-owned French telecommunications company Orange said it would seek to withdraw its brand from the Israeli market.
The company’s decision was seen in Israel as the latest in a rapid succession of blows meant to isolate and punish the country over its policies toward the Palestinians. Last week, Israel’s opponents tried to eject it from FIFA, the global soccer governing body, and on Tuesday, the National Union of Students in Britain decided to align itself with the goals of the boycott movement.
The chief executive of Orange, Stéphane Richard, denied that the intended pullout from Israel was related to pressure from boycott activists.
Activists have been trying for years to get people, organizations and governments around the world to shun Israel and Israeli businesses, arguing that the Jewish state systematically violates Palestinians’ rights. So far, what is known as the B.D.S. or boycott, divestment and sanctions movement has had little financial effect, but it has started a global conversation.
For their part, French diplomats have been trying to reignite movement in the United Nations Security Council on long-stalled Middle East peace talks that would establish an independent Palestinian state, while trying to keep France’s relations with Israel on an even keel.
Those factors, combined with the fact that the French state owns a substantial minority stake in Orange, made the company’s announcement and its timing diplomatically sensitive. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel called it a “miserable statement” on Thursday and called on France to condemn it.
Orange does not directly operate in Israel; it licenses the Orange name there to an Israeli company, Partner Communications. Mr. Richard said Wednesday that he would end that arrangement and take the company out of the Israeli market “tomorrow morning” if it were not for the legal and financial penalties the company would incur.
“Although it is up to the president of the Orange group to determine the commercial strategy of the company, France is firmly opposed to a boycott of Israel,” the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said Friday.
Still, referring to France’s opposition to the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Mr. Fabius said in the statement, “France and the European Union have a constant position known to all on colonization.”
Mr. Richard said in emailed comments that he “sincerely” regretted “the current confusion and controversy regarding Orange and Israel.”
“We do not engage in any form of political debate,” Mr. Richard said. “Orange does not support any form of boycott, in Israel or anywhere else in the world.”
The chief executive said Orange’s decision to scale back from the Israeli market stemmed from not wanting to continuing licensing the brand to a third-party operator. Mr. Richard said Israel was the only country where Orange was in this position. He said the company would withdraw as “soon as contractually possible.”
The license with Partner is valid until March 31, 2025, he said.
“Our objective is that the Orange brand is used in a coherent and consistent manner in the interests of all our customers, employees, shareholders and the societies in which we do business,” Mr. Richard said.
The company denied reports in Israeli news media that in April, Orange extended its agreement with Partner for 10 years. Mr. Richard said they inherited the agreement with Partner when they purchased the Orange brand 15 years ago.
Boycott campaigners went after Orange because its Israeli licensee’s cellphone service covers and operates in the occupied territories. They brought pressure to bear in France and also in Egypt, where Orange is the 99 percent owner of Mobinil, an Egyptian communications company, according to Omar Barghouti, a prominent figure in the B.D.S. movement.
“This most certainly played the decisive role in Orange’s announcement,” Mr. Barghouti wrote in response to written questions from a reporter, adding, “It did the math.”
Israeli officials, and many Israelis, say the boycott movement unfairly singles out their country for condemnation in a region where serious human rights abuses are endemic. Commentators like Hanoch Daum, writing in Yediot Ahronoth, say they see an undercurrent of anti-Semitism in the movement.
But in another emerging conversation, even many who reject the boycott movement say its momentum is directly related to how the world views Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories since 1967.
“The world is teaching us a lesson about having it both ways: It can’t be done,” Eitan Haber wrote in the same newspaper. “Either we continue to disregard the world, or we meet its demands and, after 48 years, give up the dream.”
Jodi Rodoren contributed reporting from Jerusalem, and Alissa J. Rubin from Paris.
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(via NY Times)