Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged Paris and the international community to publicly condemn French telecom giant Orange’s decision to severe ties with Israel Thursday, hours after the company confirmed the move but said it was not political.
Netanyahu’s remarks came as Israeli outrage spread over Orange’s official announcement that it would sever ties with Israeli cell provider Partner, which licenses the Orange name, a day after the company’s CEO provoked a firestorm by saying he would like to pull out of the country but feared penalties.
“I call on the French government to publicly denounce the despicable statement and miserable actions of a company that is under partial French government ownership,” Netanyahu said in a statement.
“At the same time, I urge our best friends to loudly proclaim that they are opposed to any sort of boycott against the state of the Jews,” Netanyahu said. “This absurd drama will not be forgiven.”
Other Israeli officials also spoke out against Orange over the move, which they characterized as part of a global pro-Palestinian effort to boycott Israel.
President Reuven Rivlin said he found it “troubling” that “I haven’t yet heard condemnations by the French leadership of the comments by the Orange CEO, as I’ve heard from Britain.”
“I expect that their voices will be heard here in Israel, in Cairo, and in the entire world.”
Worryingly I am yet to hear condemnation by France's leaders of the Orange CEO's remarks. I expect their voices be heard in Israel and Cairo
— Reuven Rivlin (@PresidentRuvi) June 4, 2015
His comment was a reference to a swift statement from the British government earlier this week distancing itself from a decision by a national student union to join the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement.
Partner CEO Haim Romano said Orange would have to pay serious fines should it prematurely terminate its contract with the Israeli communications company.
“We haven’t received anything official” from Orange’s executives, Romano said. “In the meantime we still demand an apology and clarifications concerning what the CEO [Stephane Richard] said.”
On Wednesday, Romano said the firms had recently inked a deal to extend the licensing agreement for 10 more years.
In a statement released Thursday afternoon, Orange denied that the move was politically motivated.
It said that it doesn’t want to maintain its brand presence “in countries in which it is not, or is no longer, an operator.”
It added that it “does not engage in any kind of political debate under any circumstance.”
Orange’s announcement came a day after Richard said his company intended to withdraw the company brand from Israel as soon as possible, but that the move would take time.
He said that he would like to end cooperation with Partner “tomorrow,” but that to do so would incur a “huge risk” of penalties.
“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.”
He added that the move was designed to soothe Arab concerns over the company’s ties to Israel and Partner, which operates in the West Bank.
“I know that it is a sensitive issue here in Egypt, but not only in Egypt … We want to be one of the trustful partners of all Arab countries,” he said.
Richard, speaking in Cairo, was addressing a recent report by the Catholic Committee against Hunger and for Development calling on Orange to severe ties with Partner over its activity in the West Bank.
Richard’s comments drew harsh responses in Israel, including calls from a minister for him to be fired.
Knesset economics committee chairman MK Eitan Cabel called on Orange customers in Israel not to rush to switch companies, Ynet reported.
“Everyone who leaves Partner Israel now becomes a tool to serve… those who hate Israel,” the Zionist Union MK said.
Close to 400 employees of Israel’s Partner mobile service provider demonstrated Thursday against Orange, covering the Orange logo atop the company building with a large Israeli flag.
Meanwhile, the Israeli embassy in Paris sought “immediate clarification” from French authorities over Richard’s remarks, Israeli Ambassador to France Yossi Gal said. Foreign Ministry workers were set to “express the severity” of the remarks to French news outlets and government offices, Gal said.
Romano threatened legal action against Richard in interviews Thursday, saying that his company decried Richard’s statement, which could hurt Partner’s bottom line and raise the ire of Israeli subscribers.
“We are an Israeli company that provides service to everyone,” Romano told the Walla news site. “We are confident that the Israeli public will know how to tell the difference between us and there will be no harm to Orange Israel, which is a separate company.”
Romano explained that Partner is a publicly owned Israeli company and that it only receives branding rights from Orange. “If Richard wants to leave, he will pay a lot of money,” he added.
The statement came as Israeli leaders upped their rhetoric against the pro-Palestinian Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement, which seeks to isolate Israel and pressure it into changing its policies.
“I am very, very angry. I think that what he said is the result of very significant pressure from pro-Palestinian [groups],” incoming Partner CEO Isaac Benbenisti told Army Radio following Richard’s comments.
Also on Thursday, Culture Minister Miri Regev called on the French president to fire Orane’s chief executive.
“The French government must show zero tolerance for anti-Semitism,” Regev said in a text message. She also urged Jewish customers of Orange in France and around the world to drop their service and switch carriers.