Orange chief plans Israel trip to address boycott row

Orange chief plans Israel trip to address boycott row

Although French telecom giant has not reversed decision to sever ties with local franchise holder, CEO Stephane Richard will travel to Jewish state ‘soon’

Orange CEO Stephane Richard (screen capture: YouTube)
Orange CEO Stephane Richard (screen capture: YouTube)

Orange boss Stephane Richard accepted an invitation by the Israeli government to visit the country after a boycott row, a spokesman for the French telecom firm said Sunday, adding that the trip would allow the CEO to “clarify the misunderstanding.”

Richard will travel to the Jewish state “soon” to “provide all the necessary previsions to put an end to this controversy and reaffirm the group’s commitment,” the spokesman added.

Israel invited Richard to visit and explain his plan to review ties with local Israeli subsidiary, Partner Communications, a government official said Sunday.

The government’s invitation was the latest stage in the controversy that erupted Wednesday, when Richard said in Cairo that his firm sought to withdraw its brand from Israel. The next day, Orange announced it had decided to sever ties with its Israeli franchise holder, Partner.

Israel reacted furiously, accusing Orange of bowing to a Palestinian-led boycott campaign.

Richard quickly tried to limit the damage, insisting there was no political motivation for the decision and telling AFP at the weekend that he “sincerely regrets” the furore.

His remarks were dismissed by Partner, Israel’s second-largest mobile operator.

Denouncing his remarks as a “smokescreen,” the firm on Saturday demanded Richard explain himself in person.

Richard was understood to be seeking a meeting with Yossi Gal, Israel’s ambassador to France, but the envoy had been instructed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to decline.

“The ambassador in Paris has been instructed not to have a meeting there in Paris and to tell the CEO that he would be a welcome visitor in Israel,” said an Israeli officials.

Netanyahu said Richard’s comments had been inconsistent.

“His subsequent words of admiration for Israel clearly don’t square with the unequivocally hostile remarks he made in Cairo,” Netanyahu’s office quoted him as saying.

In Israel ‘to stay’

Richard’s remarks in Cairo, in which he said his firm’s intention was “to withdraw (the) Orange brand from Israel,” touched a raw nerve in Israel.

His comments came just four weeks after the publication of a report accusing Orange of indirectly supporting settlement activity through its relationship with Partner Communications.

Compiled by five mainly French NGOs and two trade unions, the report accuses Partner of building on confiscated Palestinian land and urges Orange to cut business ties and publicly declare its desire to avoid contributing to the economic viability of the settlements.

Most of the international community regards all Israeli construction on land captured during the 1967 Six Day War as illegal.

In a statement to AFP, Richard on Saturday reiterated that the move by Orange to sever ties with Partner was solely motivated by “brand strategy.”

“Orange does not support any form of boycott, in Israel or anywhere else in the world,” he told AFP in an email, insisting that the Orange Group was “in Israel to stay.”

Aside from its brand-licensing agreement with Partner, the French firm operates two subsidiaries in Israel — Orange Business Services and Internet TV specialist Viaccess-Orca.

Paris has also sought to calm the row, with Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius insisting France was “firmly opposed to a boycott of Israel.”

His remarks came after Netanyahu demanded the French government “publicly renounce the miserable remarks and the miserable action of a company that is under its partial ownership.”

Israeli counteroffensive

The row follows a number of high-profile successes by a Palestinian boycott campaign known as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, or BDS.

At the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, Netanyahu said Israel was preparing an “offensive” to defend itself in the face of “lies, empty accusations and boycotts,” all of which he said sought to undermine Israel’s right to exist.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, a senior far-right member of Netanyahu’s coalition government, warned that boycotting Israel was “a double-edged sword.

“If you are thinking of boycotting Israel, keep in mind that there are tens of millions of Israel supporters around the world, Jews and non-Jews with buying power and boycott power,” he told a security conference in the coastal city of Herzliya.

“Whoever boycotts Israel, will be boycotted.”

Last week, the UK National Union of Students voted to affiliate itself with the BDS movement.

And on May 29, Palestinians withdrew a resolution calling on world football’s governing body, FIFA, to ban their Israeli counterparts.

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