Richard Carter with Laurent Lozano in Jerusalem, AFP
Last updated: 5 June, 2015

France and Orange in charm offensive to calm Israel spat

France sought Friday to calm a furious row with Israel over French telecom group Orange's decision to withdraw from the Jewish state, insisting it was "firmly opposed" to any boycott.

France sought Friday to calm a furious row with Israel over French telecom group Orange’s decision to withdraw from the Jewish state, insisting it was “firmly opposed” to any boycott.

“Although it is for the president of the Orange group to determine the commercial strategy of the company, France is firmly opposed to a boycott of Israel,” said Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius in an apparent bid to ease the tensions.

Stephane Richard, the chief executive of Orange — which is part-owned by the French state — touched off a firestorm of criticism on Wednesday when he told reporters in Cairo he was ready to “withdraw from Israel”.

A furious Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slammed the company’s decision as “miserable”.

“I call on the French government to publicly renounce the miserable remarks and the miserable action of a company that is under its partial ownership,” Netanyahu fumed after Orange’s announcement.

The Orange comments touched a raw nerve in Israel, which is growing increasingly concerned about global boycott efforts and the impact on its image abroad.

The fresh Franco-Israeli spat comes after a high-profile diplomatic row in December when French lawmakers voted in favour of recognising Palestine as a state.

France’s top diplomat Fabius also said that Paris and the European Union “have a consistent policy on settlement-building that is known to all.”

Orange, which is partly controlled by the French government, has insisted that its decision to end its brand-licensing agreement with Partner, Israel’s second largest mobile operator, was not politically motivated.

Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely hailed Fabius’s statement, saying “I welcome the French administration’s renunciation of any kind of boycott against Israel. The position of not accepting boycotts and smear campaigns is significant and strong in Europe as well.”

Richard meanwhile sought to soothe frayed nerves by declaring in Israel’s Yediot Aharonot newspaper, “We love Israel.

“This has nothing to do with Israel, we love Israel, we are in Israel in the enterprise market, we invest money in innovation in Israel, we are a friend of Israel, so this has absolutely nothing to do with any kind of political debate in which I don’t want to be,” Richard was quoted as saying.

“It is a purely commercial point regarding the use of our brand by the company (Partner Communications) under a licence agreement, we don’t want to do that,” he said.

“I was not aware there is a kind of international campaign regarding this. I am very sorry about that.”

– ‘We’re very angry’ –

But Richard’s charm offensive fell on deaf ears with incoming Partner chief executive Isaac Benbenisti accusing him of folding to Palestinian pressure.

“I do think the statements were political, I do think the remarks against Israel and Partner were a result of pressures exerted by pro-Palestinian elements, trying to sabotage Israel’s relations in the world,” Benbenisti told Israeli army radio.

“We’re very angry at what he (Richard) said (in Cairo); I can presume that what he said was a result of the huge pressures he’s facing, I know pro-Palestinian parties are exerting great pressure.”

Although the Orange boss did not directly refer to Jewish settlements, his remarks in Cairo came after the publication on May 6 of a report accusing the telecoms giant of indirectly supporting settlement activity through its relationship with Partner.

Compiled by five mainly French NGOs and two trade unions, the report accuses Partner of building on confiscated Palestinian land, and urges Orange to cut business ties and publicly declare its desire to avoid contributing to the economic viability of the settlements.

The international community regards all Israeli construction on Palestinian land seized during the 1967 Six-Day War as illegal.

Meanwhile, Richard’s deputy, Pierre Louette, tried to offer some perspective on the row.

“It’s an incident. It’s not a diplomatic crisis. We have to return to reality,” said Louette.