France’s giant multinational telecom conglomerate Orange S.A., which is partly owned by the French government, is one of the best-known brand names for wireless cellular service, with over 230 million customers in 29 countries around the world. In Israel, the company has an agreement to market its services until 2015 under an unusual “brand partnership” agreement with local telecom Partner Communications.
Orange/Partner has been wildly successful, enjoying one-third of the total wireless market. It provides telephony and data coverage both inside Israel proper and throughout the occupied territories. Its cell towers are everywhere, including the West Bank, sometimes on contested sites.
Two weeks ago, Orange CEO Stéphane Richard, was in Cairo June 3 to solidify Orange’s plans to expand its footprint in Egypt through its local franchisee Mobinil.
At a press conference, he was asked about Orange’s prominent brand presence in Israel.
“Our intention is to withdraw from Israel,” he said. “It will take time. For sure we will do it.”
“I am ready to abandon this tomorrow morning,” said Richard, “but the point is that I want to secure the legal risk for the company. I want to terminate this, once again, but I don’t want to expose Orange to a level of risk and of penalties that could be really sizeable for the company.”
Within hours, a hue and cry went forth from the land of Zion. Israeli customers, politicians, and business leaders condemned the remarks, and implored the French government to intervene. And before the day was over, Richard was apologizing – asserting that he was a “friend of Israel,” that he would never allow Orange to accede to a boycott of Israel, and that Orange S.A. intended to continue conducting business in Israel.
Last week Richard paid a quick damage control visit to Israel, and at a televised press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu retracted everything he said in Cairo. “I regret deeply this controversy, and I want to make it totally clear that Orange as a company has never supported and will never support any kind of boycott against Israel,” he declared. “Israel is a fantastic place to be in the digital industry, and, of course, our will is to strengthen and to keep on investing here.”
Thus was the latest controversy over a boycott of Israel laid to rest. But in the growing controversy over the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against
Israel, the Orange affair, on the heels of the short-lived Palestinian effort to have Israel expelled from the FIFA soccer federation, is a sign of things to come in Europe.
A minority of BDSers claim that their aim is to fix the injustices they believe have flowed from Israel’s lightning-fast victory of 1967: the military occupation of territories formerly part of Jordan and Syria and the Jewish settlements that have been established in them. They say they will abandon their boycott of Israel the moment Israel abandons the occupied territories.
But most BDSers hold that the “original sin” of the Arab-Israeli conflict was the establishment of the “colonial” Jewish state in 1948 – an establishment rooted in unjustified Jewish exceptionalism. Justice, they believe, demands an end to the “racist, apartheid” state of Israel.
BDS began on sympathetic European campuses a decade ago. It found supporters amongst Muslim immigrants and European leftists in academia, in workers unions, and in the diplomatic class. In 2009, BDS crossed over to the United States, where, despite a few successes on college campuses and in mainline Protestant denominations, it has not been nearly as popular. Just last month, the student body of Maine’s Bowdoin College voted down a BDS platform by an overwhelming majority.
Dismissed for years as a fringe movement in the United States by Israeli authorities, BDS has suddenly become a rallying cry of the fourth Netanyahu government. For the first time, a unit of the strategic affairs ministry was created late last month to fight BDS internationally. Knesset member Gilad Erdan, Likud’s number two leader, has been allotted the BDS portfolio, and he intends to “take on anti-Israel activities in the international arena” with a specially allocated budget and full cabinet support.
Meanwhile last week, casino mogul and would-be Republican president-maker Sheldon Adelson, along with media mogul and Hillary Clinton patron Haim Saban, convened a closed-door conference of Jewish activists (mostly right-wing hawks) in Las Vegas’s Venetian casino resort to pledge at least $25 million – and maybe $50 million – to fight BDS on America’s college campuses. Adelson described the new effort as promoting “Campus Maccabees” who will counter anti-Israel activism.
The Netanyahu/Erdan/Adelson/Saban answer to BDS is to denounce it as antisemitism camouflaged in the rhetoric of anti-Zionism. But such a Manichean, black-and-white strategy will strike most college administrators, and many college students, as a boy crying wolf.
There is no doubt that the paltry cadre of campus activists who inhabit the BDS crypt include Jew-haters. But by hyperventilating that all opponents of the current Israeli government are in effect anti-Semites, Netanyahu and Adelson are engaging in a kind of Jewish McCarthyism. In the United States, Adelson’s Republican Jewish Coalition insists that Democrats and the Obama White House are anti-Israel. In Israel, Netanyahu feuds with the American president and labels all critics of his policies as “antisemites.”
Let’s not forget that Adelson has done enormous good with his pro-Israel and Jewish giving. He was singlehandedly responsible for keeping the brilliant Birthright program alive, and his donations to the Las Vegas Jewish community are legend. But having blown through tens of millions of dollars in support of Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney in 2012, he is now prepared to blow through millions more on America’s college campuses with an unconvincing message of name-calling. It will not be money well-spent.
CAP: During Operation Protective Edge, an Orange service van on the border of Gaza provided wireless service to IDF reservists in need of a quick charge.