French official said to pan ‘excessive’ Israeli response to Orange bid

Unnamed source tells Israel Radio that Paris does not instruct companies to avoid West Bank; Israel’s deputy FM welcomes anti-boycott comment from France

Israelis walk past a store of Israeli telecom operator Partner, which has a licence from French company Orange to use its brand, in Jerusalem on June 4, 2015. (AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA)
Israelis walk past a store of Israeli telecom operator Partner, which has a licence from French company Orange to use its brand, in Jerusalem on June 4, 2015. (AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA)

A senior French official on Friday criticized Israeli denunciations of the Orange telecom company’s decision to sever ties with its Israeli subsidiary as “excessive.”

Meanwhile, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely praised the French foreign minister for publicly opposing boycotts against the Jewish state.

According to Israel Radio, an unnamed French official said the diplomatic pressure from Jerusalem in the wake of the Orange CEO’s announcement was “excessive.” He maintained that the French government does not instruct its companies not to operate in the West Bank.

As part of Israel’s diplomatic efforts, National Security Adviser Yossi Cohen spoke on the phone with his French counterpart, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was set to speak with President François Hollande on Sunday, the radio report said.

Earlier Friday, France’s foreign minister said Paris was “firmly opposed” to any boycott of Israel as a row raged over telecom group Orange’s decision to withdraw its brand from the Jewish state.

“Although it is for the president of the Orange group to determine the commercial strategy of the company, France is firmly opposed to a boycott of Israel,” Laurent Fabius said in a statement.

“Also, France and the European Union have a consistent policy on settlement-building that is known to all,” added Fabius.

Fabius’s remarks earned praise from Hotovely, who said: “I welcome the French administration’s renunciation of any kind of boycott against Israel. The position of not accepting boycotts and smear campaigns is significant and strong in Europe as well.”

Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Stephane Richard, the chief executive of Orange — which is partly owned by the French state — touched off a firestorm of criticism on Wednesday when he told reporters in Cairo he was ready to “withdraw from Israel.”

A furious Netanyahu slammed the company’s decision as “miserable.”

“I call on the French government to publicly renounce the miserable remarks and the miserable action of a company that is under its partial ownership,” Netanyahu raged after Orange’s announcement.

The Orange comments touched a raw nerve in Israel, which is growing increasingly concerned about global boycott efforts and the impact on its image abroad.

Richard meanwhile sought to soothe frayed nerves by declaring in Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, “We love Israel.”

“This has nothing to do with Israel, we love Israel, we are in Israel, in the enterprise market, we invest money in innovation in Israel, we are a friend of Israel, so this has absolutely nothing to do with any kind of political debate, in which I don’t want to be,” Richard was quoted as saying.

“It is a purely commercial point regarding the use of our brand by the company (Partner Communications) under a license agreement, we don’t want to do that,” he said.

“I was not aware there is a kind of international campaign regarding this. I am very sorry about that.”

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

But Richard’s charm offensive fell on deaf ears with incoming Partner chief executive Isaac Benbenisti accusing him of folding to Palestinian pressure.

“I do think the statements were political, I do think the remarks against Israel and Partner were a result of pressures exerted by pro-Palestinian elements, trying to sabotage Israel’s relations in the world,” Benbenisti told Israeli army radio.

“We’re very angry at what he (Richard) said (in Cairo on Wednesday, when he announced his desire to “withdraw from Israel”); I can presume that what he said was a result of the huge pressures he’s facing, I know pro-Palestinian parties are exerting great pressure.”

Although the Orange boss did not directly refer to Jewish settlements, his remarks in Cairo came after the publication on May 6 of a report accusing the telecom giant of indirectly supporting settlement activity through its relationship with Partner.

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.

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