The head of SodaStream has issued a bitter critique of Benjamin Netanyahu and his government, accusing the prime minister of cynically and deliberately nurturing the conflict with the Palestinians “in all its evil manifestations.”
In an interview with The Times of Israel, the carbonated drinks firm’s CEO Daniel Birnbaum charged Netanyahu was personally involved in the bureaucratic process that saw all of SodaStream’s Palestinian employees gradually barred in recent months from working at the company’s factory in the Negev.
He charged that the government knowingly perpetuates a false narrative according to which SodaStream was forced under pressure from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement to close its West Bank factory and fire the 500 Palestinians who worked under conditions equal to those of the 700 Israeli Jews and Arabs there. This false narrative, he said, is utilized by the Netanyahu government as ostensible proof that when Israelis try to build a better environment with and for the Palestinians, the Palestinian leadership and the BDS movement make it impossible.
As the government well knows, however, said Birnbaum, SodaStream relocated from the Mishor Adumim industrial park in the West Bank to Lehavim in the Negev in 2014 because it needed considerably more space, in a move it had begun planning long before and one that had nothing to do with BDS. It sought to retain 350 of its 500 Palestinian workers at the new Lehavim plant, but was granted permits for only 120. Subsequently, new conditions were imposed and that number was reduced to 74. And since February, said Birnbaum, those last 74 have also been barred from Israel, their permits retroactively canceled. While the new factory employs 500 Bedouin from nearby Rahat, he said, it is no longer permitted to provide work for a single one of its former Palestinian employees, some of whom had worked for SodaStream for six years, and many of whom were wonderful ambassadors for Israel.
Calling Netanyahu “the prime minister of conflict,” Birnbaum accused him of a direct role in dismantling what he called the “island of peace” that SodaStream had fostered between its Israeli and Palestinian workers. “Bibi should be coming here and convincing me to continue what I’ve been doing with the Palestinians because it gives hope to the next generation,” Birnbaum said. Instead, “the Prime Minister’s Office actually intervened to stop the employment of our Palestinians so that Bibi can then point a finger at the BDS.”
The Palestinians who used to work for SodaStream were “visual proof that Israel is not an apartheid state,” Birnbaum said. But the prime minister, he charged, is pursuing a different agenda. “Bibi is systematically spreading hate within Israel between Jews and Arabs and between Orthodox and secular. He’s breeding separatism between Israel and world Jewry on issues such as ‘Who is a Jew?’ and taking sides in American politics… With such a separatist track record, it’s no wonder that he won’t embrace a straightforward solution to lower the flames and build a bridge to coexistence. Apparently our 74 Palestinians represent a threat to his agenda.”
The Prime Minister’s Office tells a very different story. An official who asked not to be named was adamant that Birnbaum, in relocating his factory, had caved under pressure from the BDS movement. And the moment that SodaStream relocated to inside Israel, it was required to comply with Israeli labor laws. In contrast to factories over the Green Line, where there are no limits on how many Palestinians can be employed, within Israel, because of the Finance Ministry’s ongoing and successful efforts to bring down unemployment, priority is given to Israeli workers wherever possible. “SodaStream went from no quotas at Mishor Adumim, moved inside the Green Line, and was required to follow Israeli labor laws,” said the official. “So it had to lose its Palestinian workers.” Birnbaum, said the official, knew full well this would happen.
Nonetheless, when Birnbaum asked for help, saying he needed a grace period to make the transition, the prime minister came to his aid, said the official. It arranged for one extension for the Palestinian workers, and then another. Birnbaum “signed off” on a final extension and an “end of claims.” That elapsed. “The prime minister wanted to help make the transition more smooth. The lack of gratitude is appalling,” the official said. “The PM could have said we’re not helping him at all. Maybe we shouldn’t have helped him. To say it’s personal animus is despicable.”
Birnbaum — who stressed that he has no personal political ambitions, called himself a “pragmatic righty” and said he once voted for the Likud leader — also argued that Netanyahu could greatly advance the prospects for long-term tranquility in ties with the Palestinians if he adopted, rather than thwarted, SodaStream-style efforts to boost the number of security-screened Palestinians working in Israel. The main terror threat from Palestinians, as Israel’s security establishment has stressed, stems from those 40,000 Palestinians who are working in Israel without permits, he said. If Israel gave jobs instead to Palestinians who have security clearance, there would be no work for the illegals, and the terror threat would recede. “If someone uses a knife or any form of explosive, a Molotov cocktail or a bomb or a firearm,” Birnbaum noted, then the whole wider family “lose their work permits. That’s the power of this work permit. It puts the whole society in dir balak (“You better watch out”) mode. It’s the carrot and the stick. It works… When you allow Palestinians to work in Israel, you’re buying security in that way.”
The Times of Israel interviewed Queens-born Birnbaum, the previous head of Nike Israel who has a BA from Hebrew University and an MBA from Harvard Business School, in SodaStream’s headquarter offices near Ben Gurion Airport last month. What follows is an edited transcript. A response from the official at the Prime Minister’s Office to some of Birnbaum’s claims appears at the bottom of the piece.
The Times of Israel: Before we get onto SodaStream, tell me a little about your involvement in the Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies (which promotes religious pluralism through education), since it suggested I speak to you now because you’re addressing its latest MA graduates.
Daniel Birnbaum: I was invited about 10 years ago to join the board of Schechter and I did so. I have a Conservative background. My dad’s a Conservative rabbi. I grew up in a Conservative home. I connect with the values of pluralistic and humanitarian Judaism. I also do cantorial music in a Conservative shul in the States as a hobby. It’s one of those hobbies that got out of control: There’s 2,000 people at Adath Israel in Cincinnati and a wonderful choir, and I’ve been doing it for 22 years.
I think this country and all of Judaism, including the diaspora, needs a more pluralistic, humanistic approach. Right now it’s almost as though Judaism was hijacked by the black Orthodox in Israel and that’s a shame, because 70 percent of the population think differently but have no voice. That’s why I joined Schechter and I’ve been active as an external director with them. It’s my non-profit community service.
And this week is their what?
It’s the graduation of their MA program, with 84 graduates in their 2-year MA program for Jewish Studies. By the way, these students and faculty are of all religious streams – Orthodox, Masorti and even non-affiliated…
It seems to me you’re a business person whose key imperative is to run a business effectively, but you’re also trying to promote tolerance within Judaism and between Israelis and Palestinians or Jews and Arabs, or Muslims and Jews, however you would describe it?
That’s right. I believe in a better future. Tikkun olam (healing the world) starts with every individual. We all have to do our best. And I think Benjamin Netanyahu is not doing his best. I have some criticism of the way the government is functioning right now, but I think we as a people should not despair. We have to continue moving forward, each of us, whether it’s a business leader like myself, or a community leader or social leader. We all need to try to create change, for better. There can be a better world. Right now it’s not very good.
Why the conviction? You’ve done stuff that’s given you reason to believe that things are not as bleak as the prime minister thinks they are?
That’s right. We are actually proof. We’ve done it. It’s not a theory. At SodaStream we proved that coexistence is possible between Palestinians and Israeli Jews. It’s a fact. We created a community of 500 Palestinians working side by side with 500 Israelis and another 200-300 Israeli-Arabs, Bedouins, Christians, Druze — we all worked together in peace. And then comes Netanyahu and throws it all away.
The last thing I heard was that you had a factory that re-located from the West Bank, you’ll tell me why, and that several hundred of the Palestinian workers were not allowed to come to jobs that you would have had available for them when the factory re-located inside Israel. So tell me what actually happened.
The sequence of events is as follows. When I came to SodaStream in 2007 we were selling $90 million of revenue annually. It was a very small company; it was really just a factory. There was no innovation, no marketing, no global expansion and no real vision for growth.
In 2006, SodaStream had been acquired by a private equity firm (Fortissimo Capital) that brought me on board. I was running Nike (Israel) at the time. I was not looking for any adventure. I was happy. But I got a call from Yuval Cohen who established Fortissimo and had been at Harvard Business School with me. Yuval offered me the challenge to lead a turnaround and I took it.
This was more compelling a challenge than Nike because?
Because Nike Israel was only a subsidiary of Nike Global and there was only so much I could still do here in Israel.
By the way, at Nike I also promoted social initiatives. I’m not a tree hugger, I mean I’m a regular guy. But when I see an opportunity to do something good, I jump on it. We did a wonderful project with the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (founded by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein) and distributed 30,000 pairs of shoes to underprivileged kids in Israel, many of whom never had a new pair of shoes in their life. This program was more important to me than becoming the number-one basketball and soccer brand in Israel, which we did as well. During the Second Lebanon War, I made sure that every Israeli soldier who crossed the border into Lebanon had new Nike dry-fit shirts, underwear and socks, all made here in Israel.
When I came to SodaStream, we had a factory in Mishor Adumim (an industrial park at the West Bank settlement of Ma’ale Adumim) and only Jews were working there. There were 230 people working there.
That was the only factory that SodaStream had at the time?
That one and another one in Ashkelon with about 60 workers. Ashkelon was doing syrups.
300 people in Mishor Adumim and Ashkelon?
Yeah. And we had a few other factories doing gas refills in Germany.
Then we started doing all kinds of things here that turned the business around. We launched new products, built a marketing team and started investing in brand advertising. We created a vision: We want to play. We want to revolutionize the global beverage industry. We wanted to help reduce plastic waste and help people drink healthier. We found a purpose.
The business started taking off. Between 2007 and 2010, the business doubled, tripled almost actually, because it went from $90 million to about $260 million in 2010. We went public on Nasdaq in 2010.
We needed to increase our manufacturing capacity. We started manufacturing in Turkey and China, and we bought a factory in the Galilee, in Alon Tavor, and we built ourselves up to a monstrous 2,200 people team. We were bursting at the seams. We just needed more manufacturing capacity and more space. Mishor Adumim was on 35 dunams and had no more space.
There was a time where we wanted to build more in Mishor and we did not get permits. But what we did get was fines, because we put up shacks, all kinds of temporary shacks on our own parking lot.
The Israeli government, the pro-settlement Israeli government, would not enable you to grow there? Because?
Because I guess there was international pressure at the time. I don’t know. But I know that when we did want to expand within the boundaries of our factory, we could not. And then we had to make a decision. We were growing 30-35 percent a year for 5 years. By late 2010 we made a decision to build a new factory. We requested to acquire 100 dunams of land in the Negev near Rahat, in a new industrial zone called “Idan HaNegev”.
Our plan was to retain everyone who wanted to continue working
At the time, there was nothing in there. It was just marked to be an industrial zone, but there was no facility, no electricity, no sewage, no roads, nothing. And I chose that place because I thought, you know, that Beduins need jobs and it was close enough for people to commute from Mishor Adumim to the new factory. It’s only one hour. One hour from Jerusalem, one hour from Ramallah.
(In April 2012, The Times of Israel reported that SodaStream had received a government grant to build the Negev factory, where it was anticipated that it would employ around 1,000 workers, many of them Bedouins.)
Our plan was to retain everyone who wanted to continue working. That’s a key reason we resisted the government’s encouragement to build in the Galilee, near Beit Shean. The minister of commerce at the time, Shalom Simhon, was really hot on Beit Shean; he comes from the north. But we were hot on retaining our employees, including the 500 Palestinians.
We chose the Negev and then we started building the factory. It was a nightmare of a process because the government was not very accommodating. The bureaucracy was awful. It was not deliberate; it was just inherent. We lost one full year in the process of construction because there’s a law in Israel that you’re not allowed to buy property if you’re not Jewish or Israeli. By the way, (Avigdor) Liberman initiated that law. Is a public company Jewish? I don’t know. I may have a Saudi shareholder. Are we Israeli? I don’t know. We’re traded on Nasdaq. And because of that issue, we lost one full year…
Before the bureaucracy said yes?
Yes. It was also a struggle to get electricity to the site… We were pioneers there. Now the whole area is fully sold. So following us, everyone is there. The mayor of Rahat calls us the oxygen of Rahat. We are the largest employer of Rahat. About 500 Bedouins out of 1,400 employees work there. So, it’s a real blessing.
When I knew that we were moving the factory to Rahat and that we’re going to relocate all the other factories including Mishor Adumim and Alon Tavor into this plant, I started talking with government officials to secure the permits (for the Palestinian employees). What we needed was to simply change the location of the permits from Mishor Adumim to Rahat. It’s actually very simple because all these employees had already been screened by the Israeli security and they fell within a quota that existed.
We also shut down our two facilities in China. We moved all equipment into our new plant in Lehavim. By the way, we also stopped buying from sub-contractors, including in Turkey, France and Rimoni in Kiryat Shmona.
We put all of our production in this new facility. During the transition in 2015 and early 2016, BDS was more vocal than they were in 2010 when we decided to move. So people naturally assumed that we moved as a result of the BDS, but it’s not true.
Not only that. You were giving the company a bigger profile. You hired Scarlett Johansson to be the face of SodaStream. She started getting criticized. She actually was pretty robust and articulate, I would say, in her explanations, but it certainly created the sense that you were being forced to close down the West Bank and you’d relocated to inside Israel.
No, I understand how the perception came about, but it’s not true. What happened is we built a factory that’s four times larger because we needed the production capacity to service the growing business. By the way, we just added another 23 dunams. We have 123 dunams, compared to the 35 dunams we had in Mishor Adumim.
If the Israeli government had allowed you to, you would have expanded in Mishor Adumim?
That’s a hypothetical question but probably not. It’s not the right place to build a factory and because of the trajectory of the business growth, we wanted a new and modern facility, not patchwork.
If it were a blank piece of paper and I had to choose where to put the factory, I would put it where I could find working hands and engineers and where it would be close to suppliers and the port. I’d also choose an area that maximized government aid. That’s what Rahat is: a perfect location. What’s ironic here is that the Israeli government paid us substantial incentives to build our factory in Rahat and yet there are voices within the government that are upset with our move. I’d remind them that we’re running a successful Israeli business and we’re not a pawn in their political game. We are proud to be an Israel company and we could have easily built our factory in many other countries who offered terrific incentives, but we chose to remain at home in Israel.
So where you are now was the most logical, you’re saying?
Yeah, I think we chose the right location, especially since we wanted to retain the employees. We treat employees as family.
So, the coincidental timing…
So, the coincidental timing made a convenient case for the government, even though they themselves sponsored the new factory and the inevitable relocation from Mishor, and by the way the media also, because it makes sense and it provides drama. It’s natural and it makes the whole BDS conflict more juicy when there’s a big company with Scarlett Johansson and visibility. We’re all over the world, 45 countries, in 70,000 stores. We’re a wonderful target for the BDS. And here there’s this relocation it’s associated with. You see, Netanyahu loves to play the victim card and he couldn’t resist the temptation. But it’s just not true.
I can tell you, hand on heart, we decided to move in 2010 before anyone knew what the BDS was; they were only a little nuisance then. They became gradually more effective in early 2014 around our Super Bowl ad with Scarlett. That was the first time the BDS became an issue to really deal with, although they did not hurt our business.
Did not and have not?
No. They were a nuisance we had to deal with. We had to explain to customers what’s really going on – that we’re not acting against international law, that we’re not exploiting people, but rather that we provide good jobs, opportunities and seed hope and coexistence. We don’t know of any stores that we lost because of the BDS. There were some cases where we lost a store, but we regained it after inviting the management to come see what’s really going on in our factory.
Wasn’t it helpful to you to be able to say, actually we don’t have any presence in the West Bank anymore?
Yeah, but it was a no-win situation. The Left would attack us for being there to begin with, and the Right attack us for leaving. But at the end of the day, we’re running a business and we made a business decision to consolidate our manufacturing in a new large, state-of-the-art factory. Today, it’s very clear looking at our production costs and efficacies that this was a good decision.
Scarlett Johansson is still your spokeswoman?
No. We hired her only for the Super Bowl ad. She’s a wonderful person. It was Oxfam that was attacking her, not the BDS. She was incredible.
Did she ever come here?
No, never. She’s never been to Israel. I’m trying to get her.
I told her though before she signed on, I was very open with her: We had coffee in Paris, and I said, you know, Scarlett, this factory is under attack by certain pressure groups. And she said, why? I explained that it’s in the disputed area of Judea and Samaria. This area was occupied from Jordan by Israel in 1967 and there’s a dispute going on here. Just like there are a hundred disputed areas in the world, but this one is getting a lot of attention, and you will be attacked. I explained to her what we’re doing to employ Palestinians and how we take care of these people. She was touched by what we’re doing. I clearly remember that conversation.
I said, yes, I believe we’re doing the right thing. We’re giving jobs to Palestinians. Equal wages, equal benefits and equal opportunity and some of them became managers. These are Palestinians that built up a career over the years; they’d been working for six years with us. And she says, you know, sounds like you’re doing the right thing. So just keep on doing the right thing.
I said, okay, but remember this conversation. It was this, word for word. And then three weeks later, when we announced that she’s doing the Super Bowl ad, Oxfam woke up, and you know the rest of that story. She was really (fine), all credit to her.
Now explain to me what happened to the work force from Mishor Adumim.
These guys were working for us between four and six years, in total, in Mishor Adumim, and then 150 of them were given permits to work in Rahat. Technically, it’s a different permit classification. But these people had been authorized by the Shin Bet and they were inside the quota.
You wanted how many of your Palestinian workers to come to the Negev factory?
Initially, I wanted 350, but the government told me it’s too much. I said okay, you know. Let’s start with 150.
Who’s the they and what does too much mean?
They is the Ministry of Finance.
And ‘too much’ is because you would be giving them preference over Israeli workers?
So they claimed.
I see. So you said 150.
Some of these people even risked themselves to work with us, and then they spoke out openly in the media against the BDS and the boycott
It started as a kind of labor and foreign employment dispute, and I told the Foreign Ministry guys, these people provide a service to the state of Israel. Without any media training, they have become the best spokespeople for Israel. They are evidence that Israel is not an apartheid state. And by now, these people are media celebrities in the world. Foreign media have been to the factory and they know these people. In the Scarlett Johansson episode of 2014, we opened up the doors of the Mishor Adumim factory. One day we had 180 journalists! Most of them were foreign journalists who were speaking to (employees) like Nabil Besharat, Ali Jaffaar and Mohammad Jeradat. The media has their telephone numbers and some of them were visited in their West Bank homes. These are good spokespeople for Israel. I just couldn’t believe in my wildest dreams that the government officials would let them go.
By the way, I know of one case where one of our Palestinian employees was called in at least twice to the Palestinian Secret Service for interrogation because he’s cooperating with the Israelis by working at SodaStream. So these people even risked themselves to work with us and then they spoke out openly in the media against the BDS and the boycott.
Of the 500 Palestinians at Mishor Adumim, you wanted only 350 in the Negev initially because?
Because I figured, some won’t want to travel 4 hours a day, some won’t get whatever approvals. I said 350 is probably a realistic number, if we’ll need fewer or more, we can adjust as we go. And then we retain their jobs, and we retain the symbol of coexistence and we retain these ambassadors for Israel. It’s right for everyone.
And then the Ministry of Finance said that no, you need to employ Israelis. So we went down to 120. And that was about two years ago. So from May of 2014, when we opened up the doors of the new factory, until end of February, 2016, almost two years, we had permits for 120.
These 120 diluted down to 74 because over time there was some natural attrition and because the administration introduced additional requirements. The Palestinians suddenly had to be over the age of 22, married, with a child, which was not a previous requirement. So we lost some of them, and 7 of them got married, but the child requirement was waived. You see, when (the authorities) want to help, they can. Some of the Palestinian employees decided not to commute, because they had to get up at 4 in the morning to get to work at 7. It’s not so simple. Although crossing is very seamless if you get there before 5. I’ve done it. After 5 it becomes a zoo.
Where do they cross?
At the Zeitim crossing. Zeitim is all biometric. I did it, the first day. I wanted to understand what they have to go through, if it’s humiliating or not. It’s not humiliating. It’s fine. But they have to get there before 5 o’clock.
Because, after 5…?
Too many people. It gets chaotic. Completely chaotic. So they get there at a quarter to five, they cross, they pray: they do their morning prayer. The bus waits for them; two buses, took them to work. That’s how it was for about a year and a half.
The position of the government is absurd and even criminal. The denial of employment for Palestinians in Israel, while legitimate, represents a tremendous risk to Israel’s national security
And then apparently, the Prime Minister’s Office got wind of the opportunity… What happened was the Ministry of Finance wanted us to stop employing them because they wanted us to employ more Israelis, which I understand and would have been fine had these people not been on payroll for years. I mean these are human beings and they have families and they depended on us. Also, we employ the 1,200 Israelis that we had committed to employ as part of the government’s support for the construction of the new factory. If I wouldn’t achieve the 1,200, we stood to lose millions in government support. Anything beyond that, is my business and I can build capacity and employ people in China, Turkey or Hungary if I choose.
If you think of it from a broader economic and geo-political standpoint, I must say that the position of the government is absurd and even criminal. The denial of employment for Palestinians in Israel, while legitimate, represents a tremendous risk to Israel’s national security. The high unemployment rate in the PA represents a huge destabilizer in the PA and weakens the moderate government of Mahmoud Abbas in light of the challenge of extremists inside the PA. We can wake up one morning to find that Hamas or ISIS control the PA and this is undoubtedly the single biggest security threat to Israel at this time. Not Iran, not Gaza, not Hezbollah. It’s a weak PA that should be keeping Netanyahu up at night. And the fix is in his hands.
You see, unemployment in Israel is so low. It is the lowest it’s ever been in history – 4.8 percent in May. So there’s no issue of unemployment in Israel. But the opposite is the case in the PA. Over there, the unemployment rate is at an all-time high of 20%. This is obviously a time bomb and a recipe for disaster.
And from my standpoint, it’s simply cruel to these people and their families to throw them into the street like that. And it’s plain stupidity in its damage to the publicity and the security of the State of Israel.
In my desperate efforts to secure permits for our employees, I met with several ministers and government officials, including the PM’s staff. I held meetings with the senior staff at the Ministry of Finance and told them it’s a crime for the state of Israel to let go of these people. It’s our ammunition in the anti-BDS movement; they are visual proof that Israel is not an apartheid state. They’ve become a symbol of coexistence and hope. Their reply was shocking and still echoes in my head. A very senior executive from the Ministry of Finance said “hasbara (propaganda) is not my job and it’s none of my business. That’s someone else’s job. I only care about employing Israelis.” So, go away. That was the message.
I met senior people at the PM’s Office back in 2014, and I remember the first meeting on this topic was on September 21, because that’s my birthday. I met with a very senior executive in the Prime Minister’s Office — someone who reports directly to the PM — but not the prime minister himself and I said, listen, “There’s an asset here, there’s an opportunity to set a tone of coexistence and to create bridges and lower the flames. Use it. Let’s figure out how to use it. I’m here to help Israel”.
Little did I know back in 2014 that this is not the music of PM Netanyahu. Lowering the flames? How naïve could I have been? The PM saw the opportunity here and he created his manipulative spin at the expense of my loyal employees. The Prime Minister’s Office actually intervened to stop the employment of our Palestinians so that Bibi can then point a finger at the BDS.
The permits which my workers held in their hands were valid through May, 2016 but the government cancelled them at the end of February, 2016. Bibi was so eager to pull the plug on these people in order to create a drama and point the accusing finger at the BDS.
My repeated appeals to government officials and the PM himself continually fall on deaf ears. Just last week I got a short letter from Bibi where he says his opinion has not changed about my 74 (employees), with no further explanation and with no acknowledgment of the grievances. I find this shocking and deeply disturbing. By the way, the only time his office ever reached out to me was in 2014, when his people called asking for an introduction to Scarlett Johansson.
Blaming the BDS was the rhetoric that came out of the Prime Minister’s Office and also from the Minister of Public Security, Gilad Erdan, who repeatedly says that SodaStream is an example of the harm that the BDS does to the Palestinians themselves. Most recently, Erdan said at the JPost BDS conference in NY that SodaStream had to fire Palestinian workers because of the BDS. Such nonsense! Bibi himself, not the BDS, took the permits away.
As a result, all of us — including Israel supporters who are confronting the BDS lies in US campuses — lost a very effective anti-BDS asset. And what most hurts people like my kids, teenagers who live here in Israel, is that we lost a rare symbol of hope for a better future in our current darkness.
So, what’s the current situation?
Zero. There are no Palestinians working at SodaStream today.
Zero. Of your 500 that went down to 350 that went down to 120 that went down to 74, you are now at 0?
That’s correct – Zero. And while these 74 people are unemployed and thrown into poverty for lack of alternative employment opportunities, our own government continues to use the 74 in Israeli propaganda and feed the manipulative spin as if the BDS is hurting the Palestinians themselves.
For example, the Foreign Ministry took a video we made, “Island of Peace,” which shows the Palestinians happily employed at SodaStream, and placed it on Facebook pages of Israeli embassies around the world. This video is being used as propaganda to prove that Israel is not an apartheid state. But this is a cynical manipulation of the very people who were fired, by the same minister (Netanyahu, in his capacity as Foreign Minister) who’s using them for his selfish propaganda. I find this abuse simply repulsive.
You had valid permits for 74 of them? And those were retroactively cancelled?
Yeah, they were withdrawn. The explanation we got was that there is a distinction between a permit to work and a permit to enter. So they might have a permit to work, but they’re not permitted to enter. The permit to enter was cancelled as of February 29.
The video “Island of Peace” has 30 million views, which is more than any video ever produced on behalf of Israel. It’s an authentic piece of video that shows Palestinians and Israelis working together in harmony and friendship. We created it in January while our Palestinian employees were still working with us. It’s an incredible piece of footage. Nothing was scripted. We did it because we wanted to capture and perpetuate this amazing phenomenon of coexistence.
This was when they were still working?
Yes. I never believed that the government would be so stupid and evil to prevent the continuation of what we had created. From a humanitarian standpoint it’s abuse, because they have families. They need these jobs for oxygen and they had been living on the edge because the permits, during the past 18 months, were always extended on a temporary basis – for 2 or 3 months at a time.
Half of them are still unemployed today. For months now… One of them sends me a message, he’s so happy, he has a job, he’s working in a garbage dump outside Ramallah. With us, he was a shift manager and managed 30 people. Now he’s working in a garbage dump. I didn’t dare ask him what they’re paying him.
If I were a spokesman for the prime minister, what would I be saying…?
You should ask them.
(The Times of Israel did indeed contact the Prime Minister’s Office, and an official gave a detailed response to Birnbaum’s points and claims, disputing many of them. The official’s comments appear at the bottom of this interview.)
What conceivable argument…? Security?
You’ll get the following. You’ll get technical explanations, that there are permits, that there are limits, that they’ve done above and beyond to help SodaStream. You’ll get the argument that we should employ Israeli citizens and not Palestinians, but this doesn’t hold water considering there are 100,000 Palestinians working in Israel with permits. So, how could my 74 be such a big problem? You’ll get that I agreed not to request more extensions of the temporary permits. This is a half-truth since we’ve been appealing for regular permits rather than the temporary 2 or 3 month extensions. The other 100,000 Palestinians working in Israel have 6-month permits that are automatically extended and that’s the permit type we have been appealing for.
You’ll get that the existing 100,000 permits are for construction but they won’t tell you about the 2,250 permits exclusively dedicated to the Industry sector. By the way, every month 10-20 permits for the Industry sector alone become vacant — but not one is available for SodaStream! Isn’t it incredible that there are 100,000 Palestinians with work permits but this government has a real problem with our 74? Clearly, something stinks here.
There are 100,000 Palestinians legally working in Israel?
75,000 legally working inside Israel and 25,000 legally working in the West Bank. So, yes, 100,000 legally working. And they have a problem with my 74?
So, what is this about? Assuming that your 74 were over 22 and married and met all the criteria…?
I’ll tell you what I think it’s about. It pains me to say that I believe this administration is nurturing the conflict in all its evil manifestations. They nurture the hate and the boycott and they nurture separatism. I’ve often been accused of being a lefty but in reality that’s not true. Actually, I’m just a pragmatic righty. I believe that the territories are not occupied, they are liberated, and the Palestinian people are a people of very recent vintage. Why was there no Palestinian state before 1967? Temple Mount is Jewish and only Jewish. King Solomon built the First Temple 1,600 years before Mohammad was born. UNESCO is trying to re-write history in their recent appalling and anti-Semitic resolutions. That’s where I’m coming from.
But now let’s get pragmatic and focus on building a future rather than holding on to the conflict and forever arguing who’s right and who’s wrong. It’s about reframing the entire agenda, from conflict-management to future-management. That’s what a true leader would do right now.
There’s another way. It’s the economic way. Give the Palestinians jobs. Just give them jobs
But I think that for this administration, anything that has to do with coexistence, mutual respect, national unity, hope and prospects for peace is totally not in their agenda. There are ways to stop this terrorism. But instead of embracing the proven SodaStream model of economic peace and economic security, the government gets tough and builds more settlements. They punish. And they throw more Palestinians into unemployment and despair, which only deepens and perpetuates the crisis. This is what they know how to do.
But there’s another way. It’s the economic way. Give the Palestinians jobs. Just give them jobs. There’s 100,000 Palestinians working in Israel today. The terror is not coming from them. And it’s not coming from their families either, because every one of their family members is under scrutiny of the Shin Bet. If anyone throws a stone, the whole family loses their permits, so there’s a million Palestinians on good behavior now, because 100,000 work in Israel.
Now, let’s take care of the other one million. All you have to do is give them jobs. They’re desperate for jobs. Unemployment is 20 percent there and 170,000 Palestinians are looking for jobs in the West Bank. Another 40,000 are working in Israel without permits. If Israel were to take 120,000 of them, we could reduce the unemployment rate from 20% to 6%. That’s a normal and healthy economy. It also means more stability for the current leadership of the PA and reduces the threat of Hamas takeover. And, it will significantly reduce the violence and terrorism. It will save Jewish lives.
Where do we employ them? Apart from your 74 or 300?
Do you know how many foreign workers are in Israel right now? The public figure issued by the Israeli government is over 150,000 and that’s in addition to the 100,000 Palestinians. Why is Israel giving jobs to Chinese and Thai people rather than helping our Palestinian neighbors, and ourselves. In 1986, before the first intifada, there were 270,000 Palestinians working in Israel. In 2000, we had 200,000 Palestinians working in Israel. Today, with the low unemployment and the desperate need for construction employees, the Israeli economy can easily absorb another 120,000. It should be done in the various sectors that use foreign workers today: 50,000 in construction, 60,000 in agriculture and services, and 10,000 in industry.
Do you know what would happen to tourism when this violence stops? Even more jobs! Are you aware that Tel Aviv is under a US State Department travel advisory right now? Except for these summer months, hotel occupancy is at 65%. You could reserve any restaurant in Tel Aviv on the same day. Not to mention the lives we would save in the process.
If everyone does what SodaStream does and if the government gets out of the way, not only can the Israeli economy absorb them, but we’d see a quick and positive shift in both security and the economy. I know for a fact that the industrialists in Israel want more people. Most Israelis don’t want to assemble soda makers. And they don’t want to pick strawberries. And you don’t want to see how Israelis lay tiles. So, why don’t we help the people who live right next to us before we help the good folks from Thailand or China? Terror will decline, tourism will increase. The same would happen in the PA and maybe, just maybe, we’d have created a climate for a serious dialogue to end this regional conflict.
The devil’s advocate response would be that you’re naive and you don’t appreciate the risks involved with every single one that comes in, and how can you be sure that the cousin doesn’t force that one to do something, and look how many attacks we’ve had by people…
Let’s talk about it. It’s not my idea. It’s known among the top security people in Israel. The Chief of Staff, Gadi Eisenkot, said so at the INSS conference in January this year. He’s quoted saying, “It is of primary strategic interest for Israel’s national security to employ 100,000 Palestinians as is maintaining Israel’s security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority”. He put those two together. The chief of staff is saying this, not me. Talk to the (just-departed) head of the Shin Bet, Yoram Cohen; talk to Major General Poli Mordechai who is the IDF coordinator to the PA (COGAT), and see what they say. Talk to Brig. General Lior Carmeli, the Division Commander of Judea and Samaria and see what he thinks. Ask former defense minister Moshe Bogie Ya’alon. Talk to anyone (in the IDF). Of course the soldiers might be careful about what they say, but the chief of staff is already on record. He said exactly what I just said. It’s on minute 32 of his speech. Employment of Palestinians means increased security to Israel.
And Netanyahu wants to perpetuate the conflict because?
Because he’s the prime minister of conflict. He’s not the prime minister of peace or growth or social justice. His agenda is entirely focused on managing the conflict, not managing the future. He is “Mr. Security” and that’s why he’s in office. Bibi needs Iran, he needs Hezbollah and Hamas.
He’s not earnestly fighting the BDS; he’s not fighting the EU labeling law, which he could eliminate with a simple letter to the WTO; he’s undermined the Foreign Ministry, in that he hasn’t appointed a minister to that critical office since December 2012; he replaced an experienced minister of defense – former chief of staff Ya’alon — with a corporal who served in the IDF for one year (Liberman). Bibi is systematically spreading hate within Israel between Jews and Arabs and between Orthodox and secular. He’s breeding separatism between Israel and world Jewry on issues such as “Who is a Jew?”, and taking sides in American politics. He’s isolating Israel and eroding our standing among the nations of the world. So, with such a separatist track record, it’s no wonder that he won’t embrace such a straightforward solution to lower the flames and build a bridge to coexistence. Apparently our 74 Palestinians represent a threat to his agenda.
And his specific position on your 74 workers is? You can’t have them in because…?
He didn’t give me that explanation in writing but the messages I received from his staff and close circles make it clear that the SodaStream issue had become personal and that there is no dialogue.
I might remind you that SodaStream is one of the largest exporters and employers in Israel and the single largest employer of Bedouins in Israel. And for years, more than any company, we stood up to the boycott movement and have provided publicity assets and training to officials in the Foreign Ministry in how to confront the boycott. We represented Israel in places like the US Congress, the UN and European Courts as we fight the BDS on behalf of Israel and the Jewish people. In France, we won the only case ever brought against the BDS.
The Island of Peace Video received 30 million views?
That’s right. It’s a beautiful video and it got its 30 million views without any investments in marketing, although we did invest a million shekels to buy views in the Arab world as a service to Israel. When we saw the warm responses from Arab viewers who saw it on the Facebook page of the Israeli embassy in Jordan, we decided to invest in distributing this video to Arabs all over the Middle East including Gaza, the West Bank, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
Yeah, about $300,000, just as a service, to shed some light for these Arabs who hate us. Here we can show Israelis as they are — as human beings working side by side with Palestinians. It’s a beautiful picture to share. We had no [vested] interest in it, we have no business in those places. We just did it, because when you sit on something that’s so precious for Israel, you’ve got to do something with it.
Now, you also wanted to bring (refugees) from Syria, right? You wrote about that on The Times of Israel.
In October of last year, when the Syrian refugee thing started, I said it would be a nice gesture for the state of Israel, after what we’ve been through, selectively to take in one thousand Syrians. The Mayor of Rahat would provide housing and SodaStream would provide a few hundred jobs. It’s a Jewish thing to do.
So that would have been 250 workers?
It would have been 200-250 workers and their families for a total of 1,000 people. These could have been Druze, Christians or Yazid Kurds. Of course, these people would pass the relevant security screening. But the initiative was rejected by the Israeli authorities who said “Israel has no possibility to seriously promote this initiative.” Sadly, this reminds me of some dark days in history, especially 1938, following the Evian Conference where Australia said “we have no racial problem and we are not desirous to import one.”
And you would have employed them where?
In Lehavim. And I would’ve shut down another line in China. The mayor of Rahat said that he’d find housing for them, to help them settle down. 1,000.
It was a symbolic gesture.
Yeah, from the Jewish world. It would’ve been so nice. Another missed opportunity.
And that died because?
Because the government rejected it. It’s not like I had a dialogue with them. They don’t answer my calls. I don’t have a relationship with those people. But I made the proposal, publicly. The Times of Israel wrote up about it. I think there was a survey in the Times of Israel around that, to try and get some interaction.
Bibi did a good job in really building a rift, and it’s so deep and such a pity.
It’s a different level of incitement. Let’s not get confused. Terrorism is terrible and what they’re doing there, in the mosques and in the education system and the municipalities who are naming streets after martyrs the same day that there’s an attack, is terrible. That’s truly a crime against humanity. But we could do so much more to extend our hand and build a bridge and to seed hope.
You say you’re a righty, not a lefty and we liberated the territories. So what’s your fix….
True. The fact is that the Jewish people were here first. David conquered Jerusalem in 998 BC and his son, Solomon, built the first Temple in 960 BC. That was 1,600 years before Mohammed was born, so don’t give me the whole story about they were here first. There was never a Palestinian people until now and the Arabs had plenty of opportunity, specifically in 1948 and until 1967, to have their own state in the West Bank. But they rejected that. Then, in 1967, the territories were lost by the Jordanians, not the Palestinians. But the demographics play a key role in this crisis.
So how do you solve this conflict territorially?
The only solution here is going to be a two-state solution and anyone who thinks otherwise, in my mind, is smoking some serious stuff. It’s gonna be a two-state solution. Not only is that the only pragmatic solution, but it’s also the solution that’s endorsed by the rest of the world, by and large. So why invent something different? Anything else will be convoluted and short term.
Doable in the climate that we have now?
Could be, yeah, if the leaders would step up and start engaging in bridges and dialogue rather than inciting hate rhetoric. Look, whenever there’s a good patch, the leaders on both sides try to destroy it. Why? What’s in it for them to keep the conflict alive? I remind you that Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat built a bridge in 1978 at a time least expected. This can happen any time. It’s about leadership. The Israeli people are ready for peace and so are the Palestinians.
What’s the Israeli example of that, a good patch and the leadership trying to destroy it?
SodaStream is a good patch. It’s a great example… There cannot be any explanation for dismantling an island of peace. Bibi should be coming here and convincing me to continue what I’ve been doing with the Palestinians because it gives hope to the next generation.
Netanyahu’s upset at you?
I don’t know. I went to the United Nations for Danny Danon to speak to 2,000 American youths who were hungry for ammunition to fight the BDS. It was all about, “Tell us what we can say so we don’t have to hide in the library?” I went there at my expense and time because I will spare no effort to serve the State of Israel.
And what is Bibi doing? He’s taking away this ammunition without providing alternatives to the Jewish students who are literally at the front of the battle. He’s leaving them to hang dry and frustrated. Who’s fighting the BDS now? Who’s in charge? It’s Gilad Erdan, in the ministry of police, who became minister of strategic affairs and BDS. He’s a minister of bullets, but this is a war of words. It should be in the Foreign Ministry, but there is no foreign minister. It’s Bibi.
Before the Netanyahu period at the Foreign Ministry they were also completely complacent about BDS.
They were very slow to react. But it was a different BDS back then.
Certainly the government and Netanyahu is not committed to succeeding against BDS. Because if he were, there would be one office (coordinating the effort). And the right office, by the way, is the Foreign Ministry. There’s no question. They have the infrastructure, they can get to the universities, they know the deans, they know the media, they know the churches. Everyone. This is a war of words, of lies. Not a war of bullets. How did it get to the police ministry?
Because of narrow politics, as you know.
But that’s not to the benefit of Israel. That’s the benefit of job security, that’s not fair to the Jewish people. The Jewish people are living in a very dangerous time and we need real leaders now. Even more disturbing to me is that I feel, with great conviction, that the administration is harnessing and nurturing the conflict, in all its evil manifestations.
That’s a terrible accusation.
The accusation is terrible, because the infringement is terrible. If they truly wanted to reduce the conflict – the hate, the boycott, the violence — and lower the flames, there are things they can do immediately and they’re not doing them. One of them is employing Palestinians. Another thing is shedding light and hope. Another thing is putting the de-legitimization battle in one government office with all the ammunition and resources committed to win the battle. And what about stabilizing and strengthening the PA administration so that we don’t wake up one morning with Hamas or ISIS ruling the West Bank? At 20% unemployment in the PA, that could be a reasonable scenario.
We’re living in a time when the government might not be acting to the benefit of the people of Israel, and that’s a terrible time, a terrible accusation. I’m aware of it. I don’t say these things lightly. But this is what I feel right now. I love my country but I don’t love my government.
And let me add, in case anyone is wondering. I personally have no interest or intention to go into politics. I’m not a threat (to Netanyahu). I’ve learned that one can make much more of a difference outside of politics.
This interview won’t help you, obviously.
No, of course not. But maybe it’ll help Israel. I can’t stand silent before injustice. I reached out and extended my hand graciously to the government many times offering to work together. I’m on the side of Israel. I’m not against Netanyahu. That’s not my agenda. I even voted for him at one point in time. I want what’s good for Israel. I have a son who’s in an IDF commando unit. He finished his training last week. And if there’s something in Gaza, he’s gonna be crawling in a tunnel. I feel like I’m also on a personal crusade to help prevent the next conflict. And let’s also prevent the next terror victim. There is a practical solution called the Economy of Peace. It’s so simple: Give jobs, get security.
Sometimes it feels (at SodaStream) like we’re in the business of peace and that we’re also making bubbles and beverages. We get so engaged and we get so excited and involved in trying to make the world a better place. And I’m not shy of it. I’m committed to this because it happened to us. We didn’t deliberately get into this position. I once said it was like penicillin. I mentioned that in the UN. Penicillin was discovered by mistake in 1928 by Alexander Fleming. He wasn’t looking for penicillin. And we discovered peace by mistake. And we discovered economic security by mistake. It should not be ignored. Could you imagine the world ignoring penicillin?
Here (at SodaStream), we found a formula to bring people together, to lower the flames, to buy security for Israel. Maybe then we can engage in a dialogue with our enemy, maybe? It’s not going to happen overnight. But you can’t ignore these good things when they occur. And I feel that this government is ignoring it. And that doesn’t mean I have nothing to say to the Palestinian Authority. Those people are evil people. They’re terrorists and they’re children murderers and they’re inciting for hate and killing. It’s terrible. There’s no forgiveness for them.
But we, we, we Israelis, we Jews, we can do better. As evil as they are, we can still do better. And that’s what I’m calling for and I hope that other business leaders in Israel will join in this, if they get the help, if they have the ability. But it’s pretty frustrating because there’s really no one to talk to here. There’s no dialogue with the administration on these things. They’re locked.
You got my point?
I got your point.
I’ll tell you a little story. I was at Mishor Adumim with one of the guests. It was either Alan Dershowitz or George Mitchell. By the way, George Mitchell (a former US peace envoy) visited SodaStream and he left and he made a public statement. He said SodaStream is doing more for peace in the Middle East than any politician has ever done. That was his take on what we’re doing, when he saw the Palestinians and the Israelis working together.
When I was touring the factory with him or with Alan Dershowitz, I was looking for one Palestinian employee who happened to know English, to be able to explain how it is to work there. I asked one of the directors, where’s the guy, the unshaven guy who speaks English? Mohammed something.
No, “he’s forbidden,” I was told. He’s been labeled a security risk. I said what’s that? A security risk. And now I want to tell you the meaning of “prevented as a security risk.” If someone in the family throws a stone, the whole family loses their permits… If someone uses a knife or any form of explosive, a molotov cocktail or a bomb or a firearm, then the whole (wider) family… What is a family? 150 people. All of the cousins. So if a cousin does something like that, that’s more than a stone, then the entire tribe of cousins lose their work permits. That’s the power of this work permit. It puts the whole society in dir balak (You better watch out mode). It’s the carrot and the stick. It works. That’s the power of granting work permits.
Most folks don’t know this. The Israelis don’t understand that when you allow Palestinians to work in Israel, you’re buying security in that way. And some of the ministers don’t know it either. Poly knows it. The chief of staff knows it. The head of the Shin Bet knows it. Bibi knows it. But I spoke with a certain minister two months ago, and I explained this to him, and his response was Holy Shit. I got it. I’m on it. He didn’t know.
So there’s a vehicle here, when you’re talking about how to lower the flames and maybe stop the terrorism. It’s not only diplomatic dialogue. That’s not going to happen now. And it’s not only building another fence. The solution is to give the work permits and then you have quiet. The simple explanation is, people are happy, they’re not throwing stones. But the deeper truth is, you give a work permit and you hold a whole society in good standing. That’s the point. Now, you don’t want to go and say it, because it doesn’t sound good. But this is the truth. This government can stop this thing. Tomorrow. Yes, it’s possible.
To stop it completely? More a move in the right direction…
Big time. Why not try?
The Prime Minister’s Office responds
The Times of Israel asked the Prime Minister’s Office for its take on SodaStream’s move from Mishor Adumim to the Negev, the allegation that the prime minister had personally intervened to prevent the continued employment of Palestinians, and other incendiary points raised by Birnbaum in this interview.
An official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, categorically rejected the claim that Netanyahu had acted in any way against SodaStream. Quite the reverse, he said. “The prime minister wanted to help make the transition more smooth. The lack of gratitude is appalling.”
The official explained that Israel does not impose quotas on Israeli firms employing Palestinians over the Green Line. “There, Israeli firms can employ as many Palestinians as they want. And many do.” Ironically, then, over the Green Line, in the disputed territory, he noted, you have some of the widest interaction between Israeli and Palestinian workers.
Inside the Green Line, however, Israel maintains a longstanding policy, overseen by the Finance Ministry, with very specific quotas on non-Israeli workers. The priority is ensuring employment for Israelis wherever possible. In some fields, notably construction, there simply aren’t enough Israelis, and therefore Palestinians and other foreign workers are given permits to work in Israel. In high-tech, right now, the official added, there is a shortage of certain skilled workers, and therefore employers can bring in foreign workers for those specific jobs. “But in manufacturing, there are very limited quotas,” the official said. Thus for SodaStream and all other employers where there are Israelis who can fill the jobs, “that’s the priority.”
“Some may say, let unemployment rise in Israel. Give other factors more weight,” the official said. “But that’s the Finance Ministry policy: To prioritize jobs for Israelis… So SodaStream went from no quotas at Mishor Adumim, moved inside the Green Line, and was required to follow Israeli labor laws. So it had to lose its Palestinian workers.”
The official noted that there is “a whole process” to be followed when employers in Israel want to employ Palestinians. “You have to put in a special request.” He said Birnbaum “had to understand that by moving SodaStream, he was bringing it under Israeli labor laws, where there are strict limits when there is a surplus of workers in that field.”
The official disputed Birnbaum’s account of the move as being unrelated to BDS. “Everyone knows it’s about BDS,” he said. He said SodaStream “had the opportunity to stay in Mishor Adumim,” but caved to BDS pressure, and in so doing, Birnbaum “harmed Palestinian laborers. That’s really what happened.”
He said Birnbaum did make a special request as regards his Palestinian workers. “He said, It’s too difficult to shed all those Palestinian laborers so fast. Give me a grace period to ease them out,” the official said. “The prime minister tried to ease the transition. We gave him an extension. He asked for more time. We said that seemed a bit fishy. But we put in a special request.” Eventually, Birnbaum “signed off on an end of claims” for a final period in which the Palestinians could work at the Negev factory. “That elapsed. And now he says they put a gun to my head? The PM could have said we’re not helping him at all. Maybe we shouldn’t have helped him,” the official said. “To say it’s personal animus is despicable. I’m enraged to hear this.”
SodaStream ‘had the opportunity to stay in Mishor Adumim,’ but caved to BDS pressure. ‘The prime minister tried to ease the transition… To say it’s personal animus is despicable. I’m enraged to hear this’
When it was again put to him that Birnbaum says BDS was not a factor in the move, and that Netanyahu and other government officials know this and yet misrepresent it, the official said, “To blame Netanyahu is despicable… They were there (in Mishor Adumim). There was a major international campaign (against SodaStream) by BDS. And he moved. If it walks like a duck…”
As regards Birnbaum’s call for Israel to employ another 100,000-plus Palestinians as a means of reducing Palestinian employment, potentially reducing terrorism and gaining other benefits, the official said this was a “legitimate policy claim” and said that the government was guided by “two core values: reducing Israeli unemployment, and providing jobs for legitimate, hardworking Palestinians.” As with any policy, there are difficult decisions to make when it comes to priorities, and “we prioritize reducing Israeli unemployment — with good success.”
In the construction industry, he also said, there actually aren’t sufficient numbers of Palestinians willing to work. But again, he reiterated, “The industry SodaStream is in does not have a shortage of Israeli workers.”
Finally, the official again protested that Birnbaum “is going around the world blaming the prime minister.” It was appalling, he said, that Birnbaum is “using the prime minister as a punching bag.”