The uproar over French telecom firm Orange intensified in its second day on Thursday, as the company confirmed intentions to sever ties with Israel, and Israeli officials demanded that the French government, a major shareholder, condemn the statements of the chief executive officer.
Orange CEO Stephane Richard said at a press conference in Cairo on Wednesday that he would halt business with Israel “tomorrow” if the contract with the Israeli firm Partner would allow it to withdraw without heavy penalties. Orange has been under pressure from Arab countries and French human-rights organizations to join the international boycott.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said on Thursday: “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,” he said. The French government owns 25% of Orange.
“I call on all of our closest allies to say in a loud and clear voice that they unconditionally oppose all types of boycott against Israel,” Netanyahu said.
“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 — will not be forgiven,” he said.
If Orange does pull out of Israel, it would mean the capitulation of the largest and best-known company so far to the boycott, a development which has caused alarm in Israel. Until now, the boycott has not had a significant impact on the Israeli economy, but officials fear that could change.
Deputy Foreign Minister Tzippi Hotovely, sent a letter to Richard asking him to clarify his comments. “I appeal to you to refrain from being party to the industry of lies which unfairly targets Israel and eagerly await your response,” she wrote.
On Hotovely’s instructions, Israeli Ambassador to France Yossi Gal spoke with the Foreign and Finance Ministries in Paris on Thursday to urge the French government to distance iself from the CEO’s remarks.
Culture Minister Miri Regev (Likud) called on the French president to remove Richard.
“The French government must show zero tolerance for anti-Semitism,” Regev said in a text message, and asked Jewish customers of Orange to switch carriers.
The story made headlines in Israeli newspapers: “The black side of Orange,” said one; “Orange is no partner,” blared another, referring to the name of local Orange franchisee, Partner.
In a statement on Thursday, Orange denied that its withdrawal from the Israeli market was motivated by political considerations. It maintained that the decision to terminate its brand licensing agreement with Partner was purely a business matter.
“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,” according to the statement.
However, the statement was at odds with Richard’s explanation in his Cairo appearance, where he said that “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.”
The Israeli telecom firm Partner said on Thursday night that it was considering the option of filing a legal claim against Orange. Partner pays Orange 15 million shekels annually for the use of its brand name, according to an industry estimate.
Partner’s owner Haim Saban was defiant: “No CEO of a foreign company will dictate to us whom we shall serve, where we shall serve, and when we shall serve, the state of Israel.”
“Threats don’t scare me. I will continue to work in Israel and to lead the global fight for Israel,” Saban said.
Partner CEO Haim Romano noted that “we haven’t received anything official, and it could be that this is an excuse or their way to avoid a process that maybe they want to start without coming to say that it’s a political process, instead explaining it as part of a strategic tactic … In the meantime we still are demanding an apology and clarifications on what their CEO said.”
The Knesset Economics Committee has scheduled a special session for next week to discuss the affair.
Committee chairman MK Eitan Cabel did not wait to come to the defense of Partner: “Orange is a brand name, and nothing more. Partner is an Israeli company employing thousands of workers giving many Israelis daily service. These are our workers, and we won’t let any foreign party threaten our place of work. I spoke today with Partner Israel workers committee chairperson Keren Ofek, and told her that I planned to convene the Knesset Economics Committee for the purpose of issuing a clear call of solidarity with the workers and the company,” Cabel said on Thursday.
“We won’t be a partner to the corrupt threats of a foreign brand. Anyone who leaves Partner now because of the statement by the CEO of Orange International becomes a tool of people who hate Israel, against his own interest and without his knowledge. In its great impotence, the government is unfortunately not succeeding in forming a broad international front to forestall the new emerging war against us, a war of boycotts.”