Campaigners from the boycott, divestment and sanctions coalition BDS Egypt say they will escalate their boycott of Mobinil until its parent company Orange makes good on a pledge to pull out of Israel.
Orange today confirmed that it intends to end a brand licensing agreement with its Israeli affiliate Partner Communications.
The announcement has been given a cautious welcome by French and Palestinian human rights and labor organizations that have long campaigned for an end to the French multinational’s operations in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demanded that the French government denounce comments by Orange chief executive Stephane Richard.
At a press conference in Cairo on Wednesday, Richard said his company would cut its ties with Partner Communications “tomorrow” if it were not for contractual obligations.
Instead he set off a firestorm, making Orange front page news across Israeli media.
Orange operates in Israel through a franchise agreement with independently owned Partner Communications Ltd. Partner pays royalties to Orange and a share of its profits for using its brand name.
Partner’s controlling shareholder is the Israeli-American billionaire Haim Saban, who is spearheading a new initiative by anti-Palestinian donors to combat the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
Partner shares plunged on the Tel Aviv stock exchange today.
Through this arrangement, Orange participates in systematic violations of Palestinian rights, according to an investigation published last month by a coalition of French and Palestinian human rights and labor organizations.
Partner operates hundreds of communications towers and other infrastructure, much of it on privately owned land confiscated from Palestinians.
There has been widespread anger over the fact, revealed by The Electronic Intifada, that Orange Israel sponsors two Israeli military units, one of which – the Ezuz tank brigade – directly participated in some of the bloodiest incidents in last summer’s assault on Gaza that killed more than 2,200 Palestinians.
“I call on the French Government to renounce publicly the miserable statements and the miserable actions of a company of which it holds partial ownership,” Netanyahu said on Thursday.
The French state holds a quarter of the shares of Orange Group.
“This theater of the absurd, in which a human rights respecting democracy which is forced to defend itself from rockets and terror tunnels and then is subject to automatic condemnations and attempts to boycott it – this theater of the absurd will not be forgiven,” Netanyahu added.
Israel’s culture minister Miri Regev, notorious for referring to migrants and refugees from African nations as “cancer,” demanded that French President François Hollande fire Richard if he does not “apologize for his anti-Semitic comments.”
Politicians across Israel made similar outraged remarks, while employees of Orange Israel held a rally, draping their company headquarters in national flags.
Many Israelis took to social media to vow that they would drop Orange as their mobile phone provider. But education minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the extreme anti-Arab Jewish Home (Habayit Hayehudi) party, urged them to stand by the company.
“Partner is the victim, not the aggressor,” Bennett said.
Similarly, Orange-Israel CEO Itzik Benvenisti hailed Israelis who “understand that a customer who disconnects from Orange-Israel is serving pro-Palestinian goals and disconnects Israel from the world.”
Orange confirmed today that despite the angry Israeli reaction it plans to end the deal with Partner, though it gave no definitive time frame.
It also tried to extricate itself from a growing political storm.
“The Orange Group is a telecoms operator and as such its primary concern is to defend and promote the value of its brand in markets in which it is present. The Group does not engage in any kind of political debate under any circumstance,” the company said.
It added that its agreement with Partner, “which was signed prior to the acquisition of Orange by France Telecom in 2000, is the only long-term brand licence agreement within the Orange Group. In line with its brand development strategy, Orange does not wish to maintain the presence of the brand in countries in which it is not, or is no longer, an operator. In this context, and while strictly adhering to existing agreements, the Group ultimately wishes to end this brand licence agreement.”
According to Israel’s financial news publication Globes, Orange has already filed an official request to terminate its contract with Partner.
In his Cairo remarks, CEO Richard had suggested that extricating Orange from the agreement could be hampered by penalty fees mounting to hundreds of millions of euros and challenges in Israeli courts.
The current agreement is set to last until 2025.
France stands back
In a terse statement on Friday, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said: “If it is up to the president of Orange to define the commercial strategy of his company, France is firmly opposed to the boycott of Israel.”
But the double-edged statement can hardly be seen as an endorsement of the Israeli position. It adds: “France and the European Union have a position on settlement construction that is constant and well-known by all.”
By introducing the issue of settlements into the government’s response, Fabius is, if anything, endorsing the reasons many have demanded Orange end its relationship with Partner.
The French government seems to be saying to Israel that it is not going to interfere if Israel’s settlement policy forces companies to make “commercial” decisions to end their business. The French position appears to be in line with the government’s warning to its companies last year that doing business in Israeli settlements entails legal, moral and financial risks.
The coalition of French and Palestinian human rights organizations that issued last month’s report into Orange’s violations today cautiously welcomed Richard’s announcement as “an important development that must now be translated into concrete measures.”
“Orange’s insistence on the need to avert legal and financial risks which it expects to incur as a result of the contract’s early termination, however, suggests that it may delay the implementation of these measures,” the groups warned.
“Under the company’s current contractual obligations, the brand license agreement is intended to continue for 10 more years. Given the ongoing colonization policy by the Israeli authorities and the human rights violations entailed, such a delay is unjustifiable.”
The groups also urged the French government to “take immediate action vis-à-vis” Orange, in “accordance to its international human rights obligations and public policy commitments on the illegality of Israeli settlements.”
The coalition is made up of FIDH - International Federation for Human Rights, with its member organizations Al-Haq, Ligue des droits de l’Homme, CCFD-Terre Solidaire, Association France Palestine Solidarité, Union Syndicale Solidaires and the French trades union federation Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT).
Boycott to continue
BDS Egypt, whose campaign targeting Mobinil dramatically ratcheted up pressure on Orange, reacted to the company’s announcement by vowing the boycott would continue.
In a statement sent to The Electronic Intifada, BDS Egypt rejected Orange CEO Richard’s excuses for delaying an end to the contract in similar terms to the human rights and labor organizations.
“BDS Egypt confirms the continuation of the boycott of the company until it ends its participation in violations of Palestinian rights,” the statement added.
“If the millions of euros Orange fears losing in penalties is more important to it than respecting the rights of the Palestinian people, then the Egyptian people are capable of imposing far bigger penalties because they will not accept to pay their money to a company that participates in the crimes of the occupation,” BDS Egypt said.
With thanks to Dena Shunra for assistance with research and translation.