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French Telecom Executive’s Remarks on Israel Incite Furor

By ISABEL KERSHNER
June 4, 2015

JERUSALEM — A growing global pro-Palestinian movement to boycott Israel instantly created a national furor on Thursday after the top executive of Orange, a leading French telecommunications company, said he would withdraw from the Israeli market if he could.

The Facebook page of an Israeli company, Partner Communications, which has a license to use the Orange brand, was filled with customer complaints demanding that it sever ties with Orange. The Israeli government also expressed outrage, demanding an apology from Orange. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on the French government to repudiate the “miserable statement.”

The Orange chief executive, Stéphane Richard, said on Wednesday that were it not for the potential legal and financial penalties, he would leave the Israeli market “tomorrow morning.”

Mr. Richard’s remarks touched a nerve in Israel, where concern about the boycott movement had long simmered on a back burner. The movement has been increasingly in the spotlight since last week’s failed Palestinian bid to oust Israel from FIFA, soccer’s global governing body.

Now the issue is suddenly topping the national agenda, having directly impinged on two things many Israelis hold dear: soccer and their cellphones.

In between, Britain’s National Union of Students voted on Tuesday to align itself with the goals of the boycott movement, following a series of similar symbolic moves on American campuses, although the umbrella organization of British universities said it was strongly opposed to any academic boycott of Israeli institutions.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is at an impasse, and the Palestinians have been gaining international support for recognition of their statehood in a campaign that bypasses the paralyzed negotiations with Israel. Put together with a new Israeli government dominated by right-wing and religious parties, many Israelis are now waking up to the possibility of what some politicians here have long warned of: a “diplomatic tsunami.”

Yediot Aharonot, a popular Hebrew newspaper, began publishing a series of articles this week about what it called “the struggle against international sanctions,” with a map showing boycott efforts underway around the world. Ben-Dror Yemini, a right-leaning Yediot columnist, described the latest boycott moves as a result of an atmosphere fostered by “mendacious propaganda” and as milestones on a “disgraceful march.”

Gilad Erdan, the Israeli minister responsible for coordinating the fight against the boycott movement, held an urgent meeting Wednesday night with political and security officials. Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, recently convened a meeting of university leaders to combat academic boycotts.

Israel’s Parliament on Wednesday held a debate on the issue, in which conservative and liberal politicians alike rushed to condemn boycotts, but differed sharply on how.

“We will recruit the world’s Jews and lovers of Israel, and boycott those who boycott us,” declared Ayelet Shaked, the new right-wing justice minister. “We will boycott the boycotters.”

Zehava Galon, head of the left-wing Meretz party, said, “I want to state clearly, my colleagues and I are opposed to a boycott of Israel, but we cannot tolerate the self-victimizing policy” of people like Ms. Shaked “in which anyone who dares to criticize the occupation policy helps the anti-Semites.”

At the same time, some American Jews are increasingly focused on fighting back, as well. Sheldon Adelson, the casino tycoon who has been a major supporter of Mr. Netanyahu, is convening a meeting of wealthy pro-Israel donors in Las Vegas this weekend to create a new antiboycott movement his wife has named the Maccabees.

Participants include Haim Saban, a wealthy Israeli-American whose holdings, Saban Capital Group Inc., include a controlling stake in Partner Communications, which markets its cellphone service as Orange Israel under the licensing agreement with Orange.

Mr. Netanyahu lashed out against the boycott movement on Sunday, denying that it had anything to do with Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians and saying that it rather had to do with Israel’s very existence, likening it to age-old anti-Semitic “libels.” He has made similar remarks in several meetings with foreign leaders since.

Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian leader in the West Bank who has been active in advocating a boycott for years, described Mr. Netanyahu’s reaction as “hysterical” and said it was “a way of keeping his authority by spreading fear.” Mr. Barghouti said he was also disappointed with the Israeli opposition leader, Isaac Herzog, of the center left, who called the boycott trend “a new form of terrorism.”

Invoking the methods of Gandhi, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela, Mr. Barghouti insisted that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement was “one of the most peaceful and nonviolent forms of struggle” against the Israeli occupation and settlements, which most of the world considers a violation of international law.

The Orange episode is “only the beginning,” he said, “the tip of the iceberg if these policies continue.”

Mr. Richard, the Orange executive, made his comments about withdrawing from Israel at a news conference in Egypt, where Orange is the primary owner of the Mobinil telecommunications company. Orange has been under pressure from some nongovernmental organizations and unions in France that object to Orange’s connection with Partner Communications because it operates in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Orange issued a statement Thursday seeking to clarify Mr. Richard’s remarks, saying that its position was motivated by business interests, not politics. “The Group does not engage in any kind of political debate under any circumstance,” it said in the statement. “In line with its brand development strategy,” the statement continued, “Orange does not wish to maintain the presence of the brand in countries in which it is not, or is no longer, an operator. In this context, and while strictly adhering to existing agreements, the Group ultimately wishes to end this brand license agreement.”

It was unclear whether the statement meant Orange intended to prematurely end its licensing agreement with the Israeli provider, which would oblige Orange to pay the termination penalties contained in such contracts. Orange only recently signed a 10-year renewal of the licensing agreement.

But the clarification apparently did little to assuage Israeli anger over what was perceived as an assault conveyed by Mr. Richard the day before.

Mr. Netanyahu called on the French government “to publicly repudiate the miserable statement and miserable action by a company that is under its partial ownership.”

Israel’s right-wing deputy foreign minister, Tzipi Hotovely, sent a letter of protest.

“I must admit to having been taken aback by these reports which do not become a responsible global company such as Orange,” she wrote. “I appeal to you to refrain from being party to the industry of lies which unfairly targets Israel.”

The Foreign Ministry also demanded an apology from Mr. Richard, noting what it called the damage to Israel’s reputation and the potential financial fallout for Orange Israel from enraged local customers. And it asked for clarifications from the French government because Orange is partly state-owned.

“In our analysis, the man was fawning to Arab companies, telling them what he believed they wanted to hear,” said the ministry’s spokesman, Emmanuel Nahshon.

Mr. Nahshon said Mr. Richard’s statement “has no importance whatsoever,” and that Israel does not face any real economic threat even though the boycott movement has been gaining ground. Instead, he said, “it is about the general atmosphere and feeling.”

At Orange Israel, executives were engaged in damage control. The company said it had not yet seen a wave of clients switching to competitors. But its Facebook page was filled with angry complaints.

“There is no reason why you should be paying, and in fact why we should be paying, indirectly, for such an anti-Israel brand,” wrote Uriel Nofech, one disaffected Israeli customer.

Israel Radio carried an interview with the head of a local company, Simply Green, who said he was switching suppliers for his 34 accounts “in light of the wretched statement” made by the French executive.

Several hundred Partner Communications employees protested outside company offices and draped an Israeli flag over an Orange sign outside.

Haim Romano, the outgoing chief executive of Orange Israel, told Israel Radio that the company was considering suing Orange and Mr. Richard “for financial damage and damage to our reputation.”

On Facebook, an Orange Israel team member named Saja Frige, was given the task of responding to Mr. Nofech, the disgruntled customer. Ms. Frige, apparently a Muslim woman whose photo showed her wearing a head scarf, started with a friendly “Hi Uriel,” then posted a form response expressing regret for Mr. Richard’s words and explaining that Orange Israel is not owned by Orange and that the only connection is the license to use the brand.

“I am aware of what you say,” Mr. Nofech responded. “That is exactly why I am asking why you need this brand. Get rid of it.”

Myra Noveck contributed reporting.

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(via NY Times)