The chairman of Orange told AFP on Saturday that he “sincerely” regretted the “controversy” over the French telecom group’s relations with Israel, saying, the Orange Group “is in Israel to stay.”
Stephane Richard denied that the company’s decision to end its brand-licensing agreement with Partner, Israel’s second largest mobile operator, “as soon as possible from a contractual point of view”, in any way implied that Orange was seeking to withdraw from the Jewish state.
On Thursday, in stark contrast to remarks he made in Cairo on Wednesday about a desire to “withdraw” from Israel as soon as possible, the company’s chairman and chief executive also said an international campaign to boycott Israel in response to its policies with regard to the Palestinians had played no part in the decision.
“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 told Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.
“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.”
Richard on Friday also spoke with Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom and apologized for the remarks he made in Cairo on Wednesday.
Richard triggered an uproar on Wednesday when he told reporters he was ready to “withdraw from Israel” as soon as “tomorrow morning… but without exposing Orange to huge risks” and potential compensation claims from Partner.
When Orange officially announced the move Thursday, 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.”
“I am a friend of Israel, I love Israel, my comments were simply taken out of context and weren’t understood properly,” Israel Radio reported Richard telling Shalom. “I apologize on my behalf and on behalf of the company for the remarks. We at Orange condemn boycotts of all sorts.”
Shalom responded saying that the people of Israel were angry and hurt by his statements. Richard replied that he was not aware of the BDS campaign waged against Israel and wasn’t party to it.
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.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on the French government, which partly owns Orange, to disavow Richard’s “miserable remarks.”
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius responded on Friday, saying Paris was “firmly opposed” to a boycott of Israel, but indicated he would not get involved.
“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.
Richard’s Cairo comments followed the publication last month of a report accusing Orange of indirectly supporting Israeli settlements in the West Bank through its relationship with Partner.
The report by five mainly French NGOs and two trade unions urged Orange to cut business ties and publicly declare its desire to avoid contributing to the economic viability of the settlements.