Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is to meet the chief executive of French telecom giant Orange SA to discuss the CEO’s recent comments on pulling out of Israel, officials said Thursday.
Stephane Richard landed at Ben Gurion Airport on Thursday afternoon, with the company saying he would meet with officials and Orange staff during his two-day visit.
An official in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said the Israeli premier would meet Richard on Friday. Richard is also expected to hold a meeting with former president Shimon Peres, Channel 2 reported.
But the heads of Partner Communications, the company’s local licensing firm, are currently refusing to meet Richard, according to Channel 2. The agreement between the two firms is due to run until 2025, but Orange indicated two weeks ago that it intended to cancel the relationship.
Richard visited a company facility in Tel Aviv later Thursday, and Orange said he would hold a “get together” with staff from other local subsidiaries during the evening.
“Richard declared that he’s happy to have a chance to clarify Orange group commitments to Israel,” a company statement said.
The chief executive himself later told the i24 news outlet that Israel has an exceptional “ecosystem of innovation” in the digital realm.
“We are happy to be there, we are happy to invest in it,” he said, speaking in French. “We have plenty of projects here for the long term.”
“It was important for me after the controversy of the past few days to come and confirm, by this trip and by my presence, our commitment to our staff in this country for a long time to come.”
Orange said Richard wanted to “clarify the misunderstanding” sparked by his remarks during a news conference in Cairo on June 3 in which he said the firm was planning to withdraw its brand from Israel at the earliest possible opportunity.
The comment sparked rage in Israel, where it was interpreted as a response to a report by a group of NGOs which accused Orange of indirectly supporting settlement activity through its brand licensing agreement with Partner.
At a Partner facility in an industrial zone in the town of Rosh Haayin, a sign displaying the Orange logo has remained covered by Israeli flag, in a sign of the tension created by the row.
Richard has insisted there was no political motivation, and that the decision was solely driven by Orange’s brand strategy.
‘Orange doesn’t support boycott’
Orange says Israel is the only country in the world where it has a trademark agreement with a company that is not a subsidiary.
Under the deal it cannot use the Orange name for its own activities in Israel, calling its Tel Aviv facility Israel Lab, rather than Orange Lab as elsewhere.
Over the weekend, Richard told AFP he “sincerely regrets” the furor caused by his declaration of a desire to “withdraw” from Israel, and that shortly afterwards, the Israeli government had invited him to visit the Jewish state, saying he would be “a welcome visitor.”
In a letter to Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, Richard said: “Orange does not support any form of boycott, in Israel or anywhere else in the world.”
The company, he wrote in the letter seen by AFP, “has a lasting presence in Israel” through its Orange Fab startup accelerator programme and its subsidiaries Orange Business Services and Internet television specialist Viaccess-Orca.
Netanyahu last week took the row to the level of government.
“I call on the French government to publicly renounce the miserable remarks and the miserable action of a company that is under its partial ownership,” he said.
Partner, Israel’s second largest mobile operator, had insisted the Orange chief travel to the country to explain himself.
AP contributed to this report.