Analysis |

For Israel, Orange Is the New Blacklist

The announcement by the French telecom giant that it wants to end its brand licensing deal with Israel’s Partner was a morale boost for the BDS movement that has no material significance.

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The offices of Israeli firm Partner Communications, which has brand licensing deal with Orange, on Thursday, June 4, 2015. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Last week’s slogan was “Don’t mix politics with sports.” FIFA President Sepp Blatter wielded it in his attempt to push a Palestinian motion to expel Israel from international soccer. The motion ultimately was shelved. On Thursday it was French telecom giant Orange SA insisting that it “does not engage in any kind of political debate under any circumstance” in a press release announcing that it plans to terminate its brand license agreement with Israeli cellphone carrier provider Partner Communications.

Of course, neither statement is true. Soccer, as played by the sport’s international governing body FIFA, has everything to do with politics, as was made clear on Tuesday when Blatter was forced to announce his resignation in the wake of a massive American federal investigation into FIFA’s financial affairs. And the same is true of course of Orange, which is pulling out of Israel in the wake of a boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign in Egypt, one of its biggest markets.

The company insists that it wants to pull out of Israel due to its corporate strategy of focusing on markets where it has an operational presence — its deal with Partner is only for branding and logo purposes. But the fact is that the announcement came a day after Orange CEO Stephane Richard was put on the spot during a press conference in Cairo and said that he wanted to end the contract with Israel. The same Richard who just three years ago waxed lyrical at the President’s Conference in Jerusalem over Israel’s “dynamism,” saying “I am fascinated by all I see [in Israel].” There’s no doubt the boycotters have spooked the French company.

There’s an irony as well to the fact that this particular saga enfolded in Egypt, where only four and a half years ago Orange’s local subsidiary, Mobinil, shut down cellphone service, along with other local operators, on the orders of the Mubarak regime at the start of the revolution.

The military thought it could suppress the protests by denying the protestors communication. Mobinil collaborated for five days, occasionally sending out government propaganda messages, before restoring service. Now Orange is anxious to court public opinion in Egypt.

The announcement about wanting to end its Israeli licensing agreement may take years to realize, since the contract was recently extended. Orange would have to pay a hefty exit fee if it leaves now, and at the very least fund Partner’s rebranding. After 15 years in the market, the Israeli company can probably survive without the orange square; it won’t cause any damage to the Israeli economy. But that isn’t really the point.

None of the past week’s developments caused any direct or tangible damage to Israel. The Orange announcement, the farcical non-vote last Friday at the FIFA Congress in Zurich, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s statement on Sunday about the “deeper campaign of delegitimization trying to deny our very right to live here,” Tuesday’s vote by the executive committee of Britain’s National Union of Students to support BDS, the secret “emergency gathering” of Jewish tycoons called by Sheldon Adelson this weekend in Las Vegas to discuss combating BDS and the hysterical coverage in the more populist areas of the Israeli media — taken one at a time, none of these events has any real significance. Their close succession could be just a coincidence, and a useful opportunity for Netanyahu to paint the coming diplomatic pressure on his government as “anti-Israeli delegitimization.” With all likelihood in another week we’ll be talking and writing about other matters.

This has been an orange-lettered morale-boosting week for the BDS movement. But it has yet to convince any international company that, unlike Orange, actually operates in Israel, or any government, to adopt its policies and isolate Israel. Did it come a step closer, or will its success with the British student organization and Orange turn out to have been overreach? For now, the fact that many Israelis have woken up to the very existence of BDS is an achievement for the movement.

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