Mobile giant Orange seeking to join Israel boycott, CEO says

Stephane Richard tells conference in Cairo he would end link ‘tomorrow’ but fears penalties; Lapid slams comment as ‘hypocrisy of the highest order’

Orange's Stephane Richard (Youtube screenshot)
Orange's Stephane Richard (Youtube screenshot)

The chief executive officer of French mobile phone giant Orange said he would end his company’s relationship with an Israeli operator that pays to use its name “tomorrow” if he could, but that to do so would be a “huge risk” in terms of penalties.

Speaking Wednesday at a news conference in Cairo laying out the company’s plans for the years ahead in Egypt, Stephane Richard said that his company’s intention is to withdraw the Orange brand from Israel as soon as possible, but that the move would take time.

“Our intention is to withdraw from Israel. It will take time” but “for sure we will do it,” he said. “I am ready to do this tomorrow morning… but without exposing Orange to huge risks.”

The statement comes as Israeli leaders have upped their rhetoric against the pro-Palestinian Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement that seeks to isolate Israel for international investment.

On Tuesday, the British university student union voted to cut ties with Israel, drawing harsh Israeli condemnation, including officials who said the move was anti-Semitic.

The Hebrew version of the Orange Telecom logo. The text says "The future sounds Orange." (Flash90)
The Hebrew version of the Orange Telecom logo. The text says “The future sounds Orange.” (Flash90)

Deputy foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely wrote to Richard asking for clarification.

“I must admit to have been taken aback by these reports which do not become a responsible global company such as Orange,” she said in the English-language letter, a copy of which was seen by AFP.

“I am confident that these reports do not reflect the intent of your company. I therefore urge you to clarify the matter as soon as possible.”

MK Yair Lapid, head of the opposition Yesh Atid party, blasted Richard for the comments, and called on state-run France Telecom, which owns a majority stake in Orange, to distance itself from the comments.

“This is hypocrisy of the highest order,” he said in a statement. “I don’t remember him having a problem making money here and profiting from Israeli citizens. The State of Israel is an island of sanity in this difficult neighborhood and we certainly won’t accept lessons in morality from someone so self-righteous and detached.”

French human rights organizations have been pushing their government, which has a quarter stake in Orange, and the company itself, to end the relationship over Partner Communications Ltd.’s activity in Israeli settlements, which are considered illegal by the international community.

The carrier, one of three major providers in the Israeli cell market, is available in Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

At the end of May, five non-governmental organisations and two unions in France asked Orange to state publicly its willingness to sever its ties with Partner and denounce “attacks on human rights” they said the Israeli company had carried out.

According to Partner CEO Haim Romano, the company has an agreement with Orange to use the name for 10 more years, after a deal was recently renewed, according to Israeli news site Ynet.

Romano said the company regretted Stephane Richard’s statement which he said could hurt his company’s bottom line, and raise the ire of Israeli subscribers of the brand.

In Egypt, local Orange franchisee Mobinil has also come under pressure from BDS activists protesting Orange’s business with Israel.

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