Prime Minister Naftali Bennett spoke with the head of Unilever, which owns Ben & Jerry’s, and protested the conglomerate’s decision to no longer sell ice cream in Israeli settlements, the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement Tuesday.
The conversation came after the ice cream giant announced Monday that it will no longer distribute its products in the “Occupied Palestinian Territory,” apparently referring to the West Bank and East Jerusalem. It said the decision would take effect at the end of 2022, when its contract with the current Israeli manufacturer and distributor expires.
Bennett told Unilever CEO Alan Jope that he takes a “very serious view of the decision by Ben & Jerry’s to boycott Israel,” according to the statement.
The prime minister stressed to Jope that the Unilever-owned Ben and Jerry’s was taking a “clearly anti-Israeli step.”
Bennett stressed that Israel sees the measure as having “serious legal and other implications” and added that the Jewish state “will act vigorously against any act of boycott directed against its citizens,” the statement said.
Meanwhile, Israel’s ambassador to the US Gilad Erdan sent letters Monday evening to the governors of 35 states that have laws against boycotting Israel, asking them to place sanctions on Ben and Jerry’s in accordance with their own legislation.
“We will make it clear to Ben and Jerry’s International that their despicable decision will have implications,” Erdan tweeted, along with a copy of his letter.
פניתי הלילה במכתב ל-35 מושלים של מדינות בארה"ב בהן קיימת חקיקה נגד החרמת ישראל וקראתי להם להפעיל כנגד בן אנד ג׳ריס סנקציות בהתאם לחוק במדינותיהם.
אנחנו נבהיר לבן אנד ג׳ריס העולמית שלהחלטה הבזויה שלהם תהיינה השלכות. pic.twitter.com/r9OuONRaeS
— Ambassador Gilad Erdan גלעד ארדן (@giladerdan1) July 20, 2021
Erdan wrote in the letter that the “boycott of hundreds of thousands of citizens living in Judea and Samaria” is the “de facto adoption of antisemitic practices and advancement of the delegitimization of the Jewish state and dehumanization of the Jewish people.” He was using the biblical terms for the West Bank.
Erdan noted there were “legal ramifications” to the decisions based on state laws. He urged that “American companies with radical ideological agendas” not be allowed to operate against US policy. He also noted that since there are Palestinians who shop and work at the same West Bank supermarkets as Israelis in the West Bank, they too will be impacted.
He asked the governors to “speak out” against the company decision and take “any other relevant steps including in relation to your state laws and the commercial dealings between Ben and Jerry’s and your state.”
Erdan recalled that similar pressure had in 2018 prompted Airbnb to reverse a similar decision against working with Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Uri Kendler, vice president of Ben & Jerry’s Israel, a licensee of the global ice cream maker, said Tuesday that the move was a capitulation to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.
Kendler told Radio 103FM that there had been pressure on Ben & Jerry’s by the BDS movement for years, which he and others from the Israel company had worked to counter.
“They always withstood it [the pressure],” he said. “They differentiated between our activities and the political activities in Israel, and understood that it is very complicated here.”
“Regrettably, BDS persuaded them,” Kendler said, noting that there had been increased lobbying in the wake of the May conflict between Israel and the Hamas terror group that rules the Gaza Strip.
In a separate interview with the Kan public broadcaster, Kendler said: “We received an illegal and illegitimate demand to not sell in the settlements and in Jerusalem.”
Israel sees all of Jerusalem as its capital, while most of the international community doesn’t recognize its sovereignty in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians seek as the capital of their future state.
“We explained that we are not prepared to do that,” he said. “After months of negotiations, they took a unilateral move with an announcement that is unacceptable to us.”
Kendler said Ben & Jerry executives had been fed misinformation by BDS activists. He also criticized the government for letting Unilever continue to operate in the country while its entities boycott the settlements.
Ben and Jerry’s Israel CEO Avi Zinger told Kan: “That they [Ben and Jerry’s] gave in is a great achievement for the BDS.”
He said that in light of the “unbearable” atmosphere in the US, in particular following the May conflict between Israel and Hamas, “they thought that if they sacrifice me, after 35 years of operation, they will have some quiet.”
But what Zinger said he was particularly concerned about was the idea that many Israelis may stop buying the ice cream even though it is made locally: “It is important that people differentiate between the blue and white [Israeli] product and the international company.”
There was an outcry Monday against Ben & Jerry’s following the announcement.
Bennett released a statement saying Ben & Jerry’s had decided to brand itself as “anti-Israel ice cream.”
“This is a moral mistake and I believe it will turn out to be a business mistake as well,” Bennett said.
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid also condemned the Ben & Jerry’s decision, calling it “a disgraceful capitulation to antisemitism, to BDS, to all that is evil in the anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish discourse.”
However, Nadav Tamir, executive director of J Street, a pro-Israel lobby group that opposes West Bank settlements, told Army Radio that Israel’s response only encourages more BDS activity.
“I am a little disappointed in the response by Foreign Minister Lapid,” he told the station. “The legislation against BDS is seized upon by liberals in the US as the silencing of voices, damaging freedom of speech, and as anti-democratic.”
Though the published announcement said the company intends to continue working in Israel — but not its settlements — via a different distributor, it was unclear if that will be the case. The announcement was apparently put out by Unilever without consulting the Ben & Jerry’s board. Ben & Jerry’s chairman Anuradha Mittal told NBC News the company had intended to issue a different statement. According to the station, the planned statement made no mention of committing to continue doing business with the Jewish state.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.