Seeing Orange: Israel Aims at BDS, Shoots Self in the Foot

Orange is leaving Israel for business reasons, not to help the Palestinians, and Netanyahu & Company gave the boycott movement headlines it didn’t deserve.

David Rosenberg
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Stephane Richard, chief executive officer of Orange SA, reacts during a news conference to announce the company's earnings in Paris, France, on March 6, 2014.Credit: Bloomberg
David Rosenberg

It’s a pity that the famed American showman and huckster P.T. Barnum wasn’t around this past week to witness the circus surrounding Orange’s threat to break off its ties with the Israeli mobile operator Partner.

Barnum was a master of misleading, with boondoggles like General Tom Thumb (a four-year-old passed off as a midget) and the Fiji mermaid (the upper half of an ape sewed on to the lower half of a fish.) But even he could have learned some pointers watching the performance of Orange, Partner – which operates under the Orange brand name – the BDS movement, the Israeli government and the media.

Let’s start with the hapless Stephane Richard, CEO of Orange, who occupies the first ring of this three-ring circus with some ill-chosen words about breaking off his company’s licensing agreement with Partner. Funny that, since Orange signed a new agreement with Partner less than two months ago, extending their ties for at least another decade.

It’s quite obvious that Richard, who made his remarks in Cairo, was kowtowing to an Egyptian public that still loathes Israel after more than three decades of peace. (”We want to be one of the trustful partners of all Arab countries,” Richard said.)

There’s a perfectly good business case for all that brownnosing that is being portrayed as a moral stance. Orange owns the Egyptian cellular provider MobiNil and has almost 100 million customers in the Middle East and the mostly-Muslim countries of Africa. It has grand plans for the region as a future growth engine. What’s Orange’s relationship with Israel’s Partner, which pays out a few million dollars in license fees, compared to that?

The center ring is occupied by the boycott, divest and sanctions movement. BDS had the chutzpa to take credit for Orange’s decision to break off with Partner, claiming that a report prepared by human rights groups a month ago prompted Orange to act, as if a company that has been working in Israel for the past 17 years needed a report by an advocacy organization to alert it to crimes against the Palestinian people.

If Richard was trying to address the concerns of Westerners morally outraged over Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, he would have made his remarks in Paris. To be bald-faced about it, Orange was probably succumbing to Arab loathing of Israel for business reasons, not due to any moral imperative – and the BDS movement was on board with that.

Orange inside

Partner does indeed provide services over the Green Line to settlers (and, by the way, Palestinians, too) and apparently sponsors a handful of army units, but Orange’s connection to this is tenuous to say the least. It doesn’t own shares in Partner or have any say in its policies. Yes, that makes Orange part of the system that ensures the occupation, but like every multinational corporation and its customers it has a role in nastiness in many places.

MobilNi was a direct party to putting down the Egyptian uprising against Hosni Mubarak four years ago by shutting down service on order of the Egyptian government. Not that MobilNi had much of a choice, but neither does Partner, which can’t legally deprive settlers of phone service. Meanwhile, Orange continues to operate in Egypt, a dictatorship whose government, by its own estimates, killed 1,900 people in the first 18 months after toppling a democratically elected government. That’s fewer than Israel killed in its last war with Gaza, and the Egyptian government wasn’t under missile attack by its citizens.

BDS is just fine with Orange working in Egypt, or for that matter in Iraq, Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic. On the Freedom House index these countries mostly occupy the bottom ranks, scoring sixes and sevens (seven being the least free). Egypt at least scores a 5.5 and Mali 4.5, but that doesn’t make them paragons of human rights.

The hypocrisy of the boycott movement in this matter is astounding. It presents itself as a movement fighting for human rights, but its interest in human rights doesn’t extend a centimeter over the Green Line.

The last ring of the circus belongs to the Israeli government, which spit out invectives of all kinds about Richard’s remarks.

As much as those in power hate the boycott, it suits them, too, because it confirms their preconceived notion that the world is anti-Semitic and is out at every opportunity to get Israel. In the process, the government took what could have been a minor flap and turned it into front page news, thereby giving BDS more publicity than it deserved and making it a subject for discussion around the office water cooler. “Hey, what is this boycott all about?” “Really, Israel does that?”

Speaking truth

No matter, the headlines are conceived as a brilliant victory to people who think like Tzipi Hotovely, Naftali Bennett and others on the Israel right. All Israel has to do is tell the world forthrightly that the West Bank is ours and that the Palestinians are terrorist bastards and, voila, the anti-Semites will cringe as Israel speaks truth to power.

Netanyahu’s insistence that Richard come to Israel personally to make peace (which apparently he is willing to do) is a classic. The idea that an enemy of Israel will get on his hands and knees and kiss the blue-and-white flag as he pays homage to the Zionist enterprise is a right-wing wet dream. Of course, what this will mean is more headlines and more discussion about the boycott and why some people are calling for one. But on the right, the point is not to win the war but to fight it with as much gunfire as possible.

They might have a look at how well that strategy has worked for Vladimir Putin, who loudly proclaims Crimea and undetermined bits of Ukraine are part of greater Russia. He is unapologetic about it, and it has worked in the same style as the Netanyahu government seems to be working now to ensure a quiescent media and the end to pesky foreign NGOs who defy his narrative – not particularly well. Note, apropos, that Putin’s Russia is suffering under the weight of a real boycott by the West, not the Barnum circus we witnessed this past week.

Just because you say it out loud and without apologies doesn’t mean the other side will bend to your will. Israel will be better able to compete with the boycott threat, such as it is, by being a respected member of the family nations, not an angry outsider who stings back at every offense.

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