MIDDLE EAST

French telecom exec says company wants to keep investing in Israel

French telecom exec meets with Netanyahu and promises continued investment in Israel despite previous comments

A week after comments that incensed Israel, the chief executive of the French telecom company Orange met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem to ease a fierce political and diplomatic row and to promise continued investment in Israel.

When Stephane Richard said in Cairo last week that his company would pull the Orange brand from Israel “tomorrow” if it could resolve related legal and financial restrictions, Israeli officials slammed the potential move as part of an international boycott of their nation.

Netanyahu demanded that the French government “repudiate the miserable statement” of the top executive and instructed the Israeli ambassador in Paris to seek clarifications from the French government, which has shares in Orange’s parent company, France Telecom.

The Israeli cellphone operator Partner, which pays Orange nearly $4 million a year for use of the brand name, threatened legal action against  the French company.

Israeli outrage, official and public, prompted Orange to back away from the original comments. Richard’s request to clarify the company’s position at the Israeli Embassy in France was denied; the executive was welcome to explain himself in Israel, officials said.

In an effort to resolve the crisis, Richard did just that.

“It is no secret that the remarks you made last week were widely seen as an attack on Israel,” Netanyahu told the French executive at the beginning of their meeting Friday, saying that the visit was an opportunity “to set the record straight.”

Netanyahu told Richard that Israel seeks genuine peace with the Palestinians but this would not be achieved through boycotts.

Richard thanked Netanyahu for the chance to “clear up the confusion” his remarks cause and expressed deep regret for the controversy.  

“I want to make it totally clear that Orange … will never support any kind of boycott against Israel,” he said. Calling Israel a “fantastic place” for the digital industry, Richard said the company wanted to continue investing there.

Richard also met with former Israeli President Shimon Peres, who said that “boycotts burn the bridges of peace” and the BDS movement that calls for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel “damages the efforts for peace and tolerance.”

Richard said the company’s actions were based on “economic and business objectives” only and said it was “ludicrous” to think that political pressure would dictate its business development plans in Israel.

Israel has termed the increasing boycott drive as a strategic and even existential threat.

“It’s not about this or that Israeli policy. It’s about our right to exist here,” Netanyahu said from Jerusalem in addressing an anti-BDS summit held recently in Las Vegas by pro-Israel billionaires Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban.

Despite Richard’s visit, Israel received a reminder of the growing scope of the boycott movement Friday as the Norwegian insurance company Kapitalforvaltning, or KLP, announced that it had divested its shares of two building materials companies in Germany and Mexico for their business association with Israeli companies that run quarries in the West Bank.

Israeli news reports quoted a statement from KLP saying the two companies, Heidelberg Cement and Cemex, were excluded for exploiting the natural resources in occupied territory in the West Bank, an act it said violated “fundamental ethical norms.”

Sobelman is a special correspondent.

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