Not Just Ben & Jerry’s: BDS Efforts to Get Companies to Boycott Israel

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Scarlett Johansson staring in the 2014 SodaStream commercial
Scarlett Johansson staring in the 2014 SodaStream commercial.Credit: SodaStream
David Rosenberg

The global boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign has been lobbying intensely for close to two decades for companies to stop doing business with West Bank settlements, and even with Israel itself. But its record of success has been at best spotty – only a handful of major companies have withdrawn from Israel and even fewer have admitted they did so for political reasons. In one major case, Airbnb, the company reversed its decision a few months later.

It’s the nature of modern corporations to constantly buy, sell, merge and shutter businesses. When they do this in regard to operations in Israel, it is tempting for the BDS movement to take credit for the move and just as tempting for BDS opponents to agree. In almost all cases, the departing company itself doesn’t admit the decision was political, thereby depriving BDS of a moral victory.

Even in the case of Ben & Jerry’s, which on Monday made no bones about being morally opposed to selling ice cream to the settlements, the company made clear it wanted to stay in Israel. It didn’t use the decision to make a powerful statement, settling for saying it was halting sales to the Occupied Palestinian Territories and explaining vaguely that this was because such sales were “inconsistent with our values.”

Below are some of the most prominent cases of companies that had been targeted by BDS and wholly or partially divested from Israel or the West Bank.

SodaStream International 

The Israeli maker of home carbonation machines was long a favored BDS target. It was a rare instance of an Israeli company making a product sold around the world that could be boycotted by consumers, and its main plant was in the West Bank. A company ad broadcast during the 2014 Superbowl featuring Scarlett Johansson raised its profile even higher and raised BDS hackles.

Whether SodaStream felt the boycott pinch or not is difficult to say: Sales fell in 2014, but that was probably due to changing consumer tastes. In any case, SodaStream announced in October 2014 that it was moving its plant to Alon Tavor in the Negev. The CEO at the time, Daniel Birnbaum, said the move was purely for financial reasons. “The boycott is a nuisance but does not cause serious financial damage. We are not giving in to the boycott,” he told TheMarker just before the move was unveiled.

An employee at Ben & Jerry's Israeli factory in Be'er Tuvia on July 20, 2021.Credit: AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov

The move cost 500 Palestinians their jobs. Birnbaum had wanted to retain most of them, but the government refused to give them work permits. In any case, the move didn’t satisfy many BDSers. “Its new factory is actively complicit in Israel's policy of displacing the indigenous Bedouin-Palestinian citizens of Israel in the Naqab (Negev),” the BDS website states.

SodaStream recovered from its sales slump thanks to a new marketing strategy, and in 2018 was acquired by PepsiCo for $3.2 billion. SodaStream remains on the boycott list, though Pepsi does not.

Orange

The French telecom giant had been feeling boycott pressure in Egypt, where it held a controlling stake in the Egyptian cellular provider known at the time as Mobinil. In 1997, Orange had licensed its brand to the Israeli cellular company Partner, which like its rivals operates in Israel and over the Green Line (the armistice demarcatation line before the 1967 Six-Day War that separates Israel and the West Bank), but it never held an equity stake in it.

At a Cairo conference in June 2015, Orange's president, Stéphane Richard, said of Partner: “Believe me, I would cancel the contract tomorrow if I could. We want to end this and to fix this; we don't want it.” That was taken to mean that the company wanted to get out of Israel, but Richard was quick to deny that. Days later he visited Israel and met then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-President Shimon Peres. “Orange does not support any form of boycott, in Israel or anywhere else in the world,” he said in comments to Agence France-Presse.

Former President Reuven Rivlin visiting SodaStream's new factory in Alon Tavor in the Negev.Credit: Mark Neeman / GPO

Orange and Partner parted ways the following February. The French company said it wasn’t due to boycott pressure but to a “brand strategy” of ending licensing agreements like the one with Partner. In fact, Orange ended similar deals in eight other countries about the same time. In any case, Orange isn’t boycotting Israel: Its venture capital arm has stakes in two Israeli startups.

G4S

The British security company had long been targeted by BDS and human rights activists not only for its operations in Israel but elsewhere in the world. Vis-à-vis Israel, however, it was particularly vulnerable. When in 2002 it acquired Hashmira, the country’s largest security firm, its operations included staffing West Bank checkpoints and the Ofer Prison, where Palestinian security prisoners were held.

G4S agreed to sell nearly all of its Israeli operations to an Israeli investor, the FIMI Opportunity Funds, for 425 million shekels ($129 million at current exchange rates) in December 2016. Ashley Almanza, G4S’s CEO, denied the sale was connected to the boycott. “The sale of our business in Israel is part of our active portfolio management program announced in 2013 to improve our strategic focus and capital discipline,” he said in a statement at the time.

Israeli flags are displayed on screens near the logo of mobile company Orange, as a security guard walks by at the headquarters of Partner in Rosh Ha'ayin on June 4, 2015.Credit: Nir Elias / Reuters

The company was renamed G1 Security Solutions and trades on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. Meanwhile, G4S retains a 25 percent stake in Policity, the Israel Police training college. For that reason, the company remains on the BDS movement’s blacklist.

Airbnb

Before Ben & Jerry’s, the San Francisco-based online vacation rentals company was arguably the BDS movement’s biggest success – until it wasn’t. The company had been targeted by the movement for allowing settlers to list their homes on the platform. Even within the Israeli market, the settler share of Airbnb’s business was a mere  200 listings out of more than 20,000, according to the company. But for human rights groups, that made Airbnb and other online travel sites complicit in the occupation.

In November 2018, Airbnb announced it would eliminate the 200 listings. It was quite explicit in saying the decision was political (“The existence of listings in the occupied territory has a direct connection to the larger dispute in the region”), but otherwise refrained from commenting. The ban didn’t include East Jerusalem or the Golan Heights. The Israeli government responded with fury, and the company was sued in the United States and Israel. In the meantime, it didn’t remove the listings.

In April 2019, Airbnb reversed itself: It announced it was settling the four lawsuits and would continue to list settler homes, but the profits would be donated to nonprofits (unconnected to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute). It also answered critics’ complaints that it had singled out Israel by blocking listings in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two other disputed areas (Russian-occupied Crimea had been banned earlier). “Airbnb has always opposed the BDS movement,” it added.

That remains the case today, to the anger of the BDS movement: When Airbnb filed for an initial public offering in December, Amnesty International protested.

Veolia and Alstom

Not being companies that sell to consumers, the two French firms attracted less attention than others. Nevertheless, they were targeted by BDS activists mainly for their role in building and operating the Jerusalem Light Rail, whose trains operate in East Jerusalem (which the Palestinians claim as their capital).

Both companies were sued over their role in the project, but a French court ruled in 2013 that they were not in violation of Geneva Convention rules regarding occupation. Nevertheless, the same year, Alstom sold its 20 percent stake in CityPass, the operator of the system’s Red Line, to its Israeli partners. Veolia bailed out two years later, when its 50-percent-owed Transdev unit sold its stakes in CityPass and train operator Connex. A few months earlier, the company also sold its water, waste management and energy operations in Israel to a U.S. private equity firm for 220 million euros.

The BDS movement declared victory over the light rail divestment, but Veolia said the sale was part of a strategic realignment. The light rail project had been subject to chronic disputes with the government, which eventually bought out the rest of the CityPass partners with the aim of awarding the concession to a new group.

Passengers riding a Jerusalem light rail train on the first day it opened, in 2011.Credit: AP

In fact, when the time came in 2019 for awarding the concession, only two international consortia made bids, which Israeli officials blamed on the boycott. Alstom was one of the multinationals that dropped out, prompting Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon to call for the company to be boycotted. It denied its decision was political and promised it was continuing to operate in Israel.

Alstom subsequently joined bidding for the Tel Aviv Light Rail and in December invested in the Israeli railway-tech startup Cylus.

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