Orange CEO Stephane Richard denied on Thursday night that his comments in Cairo a day earlier on wanting to pull out of the Israeli market were in any way politically motivated, in an apparent move to toe the company line saying the decision to sever ties with its Israeli subsidiary, announced Thursday, was purely business-based.
In an interview with French newspaper Le Monde under the headline “The CEO of Orange explains himself,” Richard maintained that he had not spoken in support of boycotting Israel.
On Wednesday Richard said during a press conference in Cairo that he would like to end cooperation with Israeli local operator Partner Communications “tomorrow,” noting the sensitivity of the issue to the Arab public. However, when Orange officially announced the move a day later, it claimed the decision was based purely on its desire to pull the brand from “countries in which it is not, or is no longer, an operator.”
Richard told Le Monde on Thursday that Partner “is a company that uses the name of Orange, but that has nothing to do with the group and is not controlled by us.
“It is not in (our) policy that an operator over which we have no control use our brand,” he said. “This has nothing to do with the political context.”
Richard’s latest statements seemed inconsistent with those he made on Wednesday. In Cairo, the company head had explained to his audience: “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 added that profit from the Israeli market was negligible. “The interest for us is certainly not a financial interest. If you take those amounts on one side and on the other side the time that we spend to explain this, to try to find a solution and the consequences that we have to manage here but also in France, believe me it’s a very bad deal,” he said.
Partner pays to use the Orange name and operates in Israel and in settlements in the West Bank. This has elicited calls by supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) that Orange pull its brand from the country.
France’s ambassador to the US Gerard Araud on Thursday appeared to defended the company’s move on Thursday, saying it was “illegal to contribute” to occupation of territories under international law.
The statements on Twitter by Araud, who served as France’s ambassador to Israel in 2003-6, came as Israeli government officials urged Paris to condemn Orange’s decision, which Jerusalem says is part of a larger pro-Palestinian effort to impose a boycott on Israel.
There was no immediate official reaction from Paris, which owns a 13 percent stake in Orange.
Israeli leaders on Thursday urged the French government to condemn the Orange move.
“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,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.
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.”
Israeli-American media mogul Haim Saban, who holds a controlling share of Partner Communications, accused the French company of buckling to pressure from anti-Semitic groups.
In a series of interviews to Israeli media outlets, Saban sounded off against the French telecom mammoth, calling the move “completely out of place.”
“Partner is an Israeli firm in every sense. We signed a contract with them and we are considering our steps in the wake of their statement,” Saban told Ynet. Quoting liturgy from the Passover seder, Saban indicated he would not take the move lying down.
Orange “conceded to pressures from all sorts of anti-Semitic bodies,” he told Channel 2. “In each generation they rise up to destroy us — we are strong and we will be united and fight them.”
The mogul, who was headed to Las Vegas for a meeting on combating Israel boycott efforts with billionaire Sheldon Adelson, also expressed disappointment that the French government, which is a stakeholder in Orange, didn’t condemn the Orange CEO’s statement. The French government “de facto owns Orange,” he said. “The French government should speak out and dissociate itself from the head of Orange in France.”
He also faulted the Israeli government for not setting up a hierarchy, and funding it properly, to battle efforts to boycott and delegitimize Israel.
Close to 400 Partner employees demonstrated Thursday against Orange, covering the Orange logo atop the company building with a large Israeli flag.
Partner CEO Haim Romano threatened legal action against Richard in interviews Thursday. 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.”