After five days of international diplomatic and business fireworks, the Egyptian branch of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) has told Daily News Egypt they will “step up” they campaign to boycott Mobinil until its parent company Orange drops its business links in Israel.
In response to questions asked by Daily News Egypt at a press conference in Cairo last Wednesday, the CEO of the international communications company Orange suggested that he was ready to drop links with his company’s affiliate in Israel.
“It is our intention to terminate contract with Israel… Believe me I would cancel the contract tomorrow if I could,” said CEO Stephane Richard, referring to the Orange brand licensing agreement with Israeli affiliate Partner Communications.
The comments made headlines across the world, and a diplomatic fall-out resulted, with calls made for Richard’s resignation by the Israeli government.
Mobinil and Orange have been the targets of BDS Egypt for profiting from the actions of Partner Communications, through their franchise Orange Israel. The Israeli communications network is reported to sponsor military units that participated in the 2014 operations in Gaza, in which more than 2,200 Palestinians died, as well as running campaigns such as ‘Adopt a Soldier’.
“The amount of money we receive from these contracts is very, very low, we are not involved out of financial interest,” Richard said at the press conference. “If you take the amount of money we receive and the amount of time we take handling the contract and explaining it in France and elsewhere, believe me it’s not a good deal.”
The statements by Richard were welcomed by activists and human rights organisations, including the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), who called for “concrete measures” to follow up the statements. FIDH had published a report in May claiming that Orange and the French government – who own a 25% stake in the company – profit from the illegal oppression of Palestinians as, in one example, the affiliate Partner Communications operates communications towers and other infrastructure on land confiscated from Palestinians, as well as running Orange-branded stores there.
In the subsequent fall-out after Richard’s statements, Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu called on the French government to denounce the statements. CEO Richard seemed to oblige.
“I’m a friend of Israel, I love Israel. My words were taken out of context and misunderstood. I apologize in my name and in the company’s name for these statements. We at Orange condemn boycotts of any kind,” he was quoted as saying two days after and even suggested that Orange might be in Israel for longer term.
Despite Richard’s apology, BDS Egypt feels that the public statements were more planned. “We were in negotiations with Mobinil two weeks before the conference. We told them the only way to reduce tensions is to admit their deal is a mistake, that it is wrong. Mobinil accepted and Richard’s statement came out of these negotiations,” BDS spokesperson Ramy Shaath told Daily News Egypt.
However, Shaath felt that perhaps Richard was unintentionally frank. “He was not calculating Israel’s reaction. He thought he was speaking to the Arab world, and I think he recognises that Orange are party to crimes against humanity.”
During the press conference, Richard suggested that the contract with Partner Communications was “inherited” from 1998, and thus out of the company’s hands. However, when asked by Daily News Egypt about reports that the contract was renewed in 2015, Richard said: “We didn’t renew the contract, we wanted to change the terms of the contract and include a termination date, as there previously wasn’t a termination date, and gave us no possibility of leaving the deal.”
Richard’s argument at the conference was that Orange cannot prematurely cancel the contract because they would lose significantly in Israeli courts, having no legal grounding for the termination. But the BDS Egypt spokesperson is not convinced: “Why go through Israeli courts? Orange is a French company and should go through French courts. If McDonalds had a dispute with an Egyptian franchise, they would go through US courts.”
Responding to Richard’s apology phone call to Israel and his statement that his comments were misunderstood, Shaath said: “It’s utter rubbish, he was bending to the pressure of the French and Israeli governments. Obviously we would prefer condemnation of Partner Communications by Orange, but ultimately, what we want to do is hurt the occupation economy. Partner considers Orange one of its major elements, so this is big.”
“Fear of the widespread boycott and international courts is real for Orange. They are worried about the destruction of the brand name that they have spent billions establishing. We told them that the longer that you prolong the pull-out the more unrecoverable damage you are doing to your image,” Shaath said.
Shaath also feels that despite the lack of clarity of whether and when Orange may pull out of Israel, the events of the past few days adds stamina to the BDS movements across the globe, representing a lesson to companies that engaging with Israel might be catastrophic. “But in fact, it’s the Israelis themselves who are most alarmed; Orange making these statements is another highly symbolic instance of their increasing isolation,” he said.
After many years of BDS campaigning, the French multinational Veolia lost billions of dollars in contracts with Israeli companies and ultimately sold its interests in Israel and its settlements.
Earlier this June, the UK’s National Union of Students voted to affiliate with the BDS movement in an act that also made Israeli headlines and seemed to touch a sensitive issue in the Israeli administration.
In response, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to make the argument that “[the students] boycott Israel but they refuse to boycott ISIS. That tells you everything you want to know about the BDS movement. They condemn Israel and do not condemn ISIS”.
Meanwhile, the European Union is also considering a proposal to label all goods produced in illegal settlements that are sold across the region. This too has sparked intense worries and diplomatic efforts to halt its implementation, as reported in Israeli press.
Many activists see the issue as an economic war, after years of failed negotiations with the Israeli state.
But Haim Saban, the controlling shareholder of Partner Communications, seems to be summoning his own powers to tackle the movement, calling it part of an “an anti-Semitic tsunami that’s coming at us”. Saban is one of the US Democratic Party’s largest donors and fundraisers, and has joined up with casino magnate Sheldon Adelson to establish a summit of “Jewish mega-donors” to combat the movement. Following Richard’s statements, Adelson suggested that they are looking to capitalise on their links: “We can use our influence … with anybody we know in the administration and in Congress for the betterment of the relations between the U.S. and Israel.”
But for Egypt’s newly launched BDS movement, they are ready for the fight: “Now we are looking into how to up the campaign against Orange and Mobinil, and are considering taking on an additional campaign. But we are happy considering we only launched one month and a half ago,” Shaath said.
“We are in collaboration with the French BDS campaign and also talking with groups in Jordan and Morocco who are hoping to launch their campaign soon,” he continued. “We got a direct challenge from Netanyahu. He blackmailed France and Orange, and issued a direct challenge to the Egyptian people. We accept the challenge. We will try and make them lose as much money as they can. We will take them on.”