Orange folded to ‘anti-Semitic pressure,’ owner of Israeli cell firm says

Media mogul Haim Saban tells press he is weighing legal action against French media giant for terminating contract

Haim Saban at a media summit in Sun Valley, Idaho, on July 8, 2009. (AP/Nati Harnik)
Haim Saban at a media summit in Sun Valley, Idaho, on July 8, 2009. (AP/Nati Harnik)

The owner of the Israeli company franchising the name of mobile giant Orange threatened legal action against the company Thursday, after it said it would cut ties with its Israeli licensee.

Israeli-American media mogul Haim Saban, who holds a controlling share of Partner Communications, also accused the French company of buckling to pressure from anti-Semitic groups.

In a series of interviews to Israeli media outlets Thursday, speaking shortly after Orange said it was seeking to terminate its relationship with Partner, 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 Israeli news outlet 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.

Earlier in the day, Orange confirmed in a statement that it intends to break ties with Partner, which leases the Orange name but is otherwise independent, though it denied the move was politically motivated.

The statement came a day after Orange CEO Stephane Richard had told an audience in Cairo he would cut ties with Israel “tomorrow” if he could, but feared penalties, indicating that the move was intended to soothe Arab concerns over the company’s dealings with Partner, which operates in Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Stephane Richard, the chief executive officer of French mobile phone company Orange, gestures as he speaks during a press conference in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, June 3, 2015. (AP Photo/Thomas Hartwell)
Stephane Richard, the chief executive officer of French mobile phone company Orange, gestures as he speaks during a press conference in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, June 3, 2015. (AP Photo/Thomas Hartwell)

“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 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.

Three years ago, Richard attended a conference in Israel on new media, and hailed the country for its “warmth” and spirit of innovation.

The move by Orange has lit up a firestorm of condemnation in Israel, with officials calling on the French government, which owns a 13% stake in Orange, to condemn the move, and consumers saying they would no longer support the company.

Saban appealed to Israelis to not hand Orange a victory by canceling their service and hurting Partner’s bottom line, but instead to rally around the firm.

Israeli flags are seen inside the "Partner Orange" Communications Company offices in the city of Rosh Ha'ayin, Israel, Thursday, June 4, 2015. (AP Photo/Dan Balilty)
Israeli flags are seen inside the “Partner Orange” Communications Company offices in the city of Rosh Ha’ayin, Israel, Thursday, June 4, 2015. (AP Photo/Dan Balilty)

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.

Partner CEO Haim Romano threatened legal action against Richard in interviews Thursday, saying that his company decried Richard’s statement, which he said could hurt his company’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 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.”

Earlier in the day, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged Paris and the international community to publicly condemn Orange’s decision to severe ties with Israel.

“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,” he 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 the company for 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.”

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.

In a statement released Thursday afternoon, Orange 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.”

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