French mobile communications giant Orange officially announced Thursday that it would sever its ties with its Israeli subsidiary Partner, a day after the company’s CEO provoked a firestorm by saying he would like to pull out of the country but feared penalties.
The company denied that the move was politically motivated, despite claims in Israel that the company’s CEO was looking to join a boycott of Israel.
A statement from the company 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 clarified that it “does not engage in any kind of political debate under any circumstance.”
The announcement came a day after Orange CEO Stephane 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.”
“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.”
Orange does not operate in Israel but licenses its name to Partner Communications. On Wednesday, outgoing Partner head Haim Romano said the firms had recently renewed its agreement for another 10 years.
The call to sever ties drew harsh responses in Israel, including calls from a minister to fire Richard.
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 the chief executive of telecom giant Orange SA.
“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.
On Wednesday, 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.”
Despite Romano’s assertion that Israeli users would distinguish between between Orange and Partner, Israeli synthetic grass marketer Pashut Yarok was quick to announce Thursday the immediate cancellation of 34 Partner mobile phone lines used by the company.
Pashut Yarok also advised its employees to avoid using mobile networks associated with Orange during travels abroad.
“The fight against boycotts should be shared by all citizens of Israel, regardless of political views, and we feel a duty and a right to take part in it,” Pashut Yarok wrote in a statement. “We hope that Partner will find a quick way to break away from Orange, which has become a burden, and possibly sue [the company] for damages caused.”
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 organizations 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.
In Egypt, local Orange franchisee Mobinil has also come under pressure from BDS activists protesting Orange’s business with Israel.
AP contributed to this report.