When Orange CEO Stephane Richard publicly humiliated himself before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week, retracting his statement in Cairo that he would cut ties with Israeli telecom company Partner “tomorrow” if he could, the Israeli prime minister must have felt as smug as Pope Gregory VII when King Henry IV begged for his forgiveness for challenging his power. If Netanyahu knows the eventual fate of Pope Gregory, then perhaps he has good reason for concern.
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After Richard’s Egypt speech about the Israeli firm that licenses the Orange brand went public, Netanyahu practically excommunicated the CEO, much as Gregory VII did to King Henry IV in 1077, during a power struggle between the spiritual leader of Christianity and the lay leader of the German-based Holy Roman Empire.
The prospect of Orange seemingly joining the anti-Israel boycott threatened the Jewish state’s international status. “I call on the French government to distance itself publicly from the miserable statement,” Netanyahu said earlier this month. The French government owns a stake in Orange.
Nearly a century earlier, King Henry IV had declared that he had the right to invest local church clergy with power. This move threatened the international status of Gregory, who issued an official excommunication from the church that would become permanent after one year if he would not repent. Henry quickly found himself cornered as he found little support among the other nobles for his defiance of the pope.
Fast forward to 2015, and Stephane Richard, who just a few days before had declared that Orange was concerned about Israel’s settlement activities and wanted to earn the trust of the Arab world, realized he had challenged a force more powerful than the Arab world, and immediately backtracked.
Both men knew they had to apologize to return to the good graces of the rulers whose wrath they had provoked. It would not be easy for either of them.
Henry had to travel to Canossa, Italy, where the pope was residing at the time. He arrived in January 1077 and asked for an audience. Instead, the pope refused him entry and made him wait three days in the cold, barefoot and in sackcloth. The pope finally admitted the king, who knelt before him and begged forgiveness. The two shared communion that same evening – the excommunication was over, and Henry was officially in the pope’s good graces.
Richard, on the other hand, sought to apologize to the Israeli ambassador in Paris. That was not enough for Netanyahu, who holds the Foreign Ministry portfolio. He ordered the Israeli Embassy on June 7 to reject Richard’s request to meet, and invited Richard to Jerusalem to apologize personally.
Poor Richard didn’t have to wait three days barefoot and in sackcloth, as King Henry did, but he did have to wait five days to do the inevitable – make what The New York Times called an “extraordinary personal pilgrimage to Israel” for an audience with the pope, er, prime minister, to profusely apologize. On Friday, he declared in front of Netanyahu and four Israeli flags: “I regret deeply this controversy, and I want to make totally clear that Orange as a company has never supported and will never support any kind of boycott against Israel.”
Both men’s gestures demonstrated who had the true power in their respective relationships, who could bring to his knees anyone trying to break away from his sphere of influence.
The historical incident is the backdrop to the idiom “going to Canossa,” which refers to someone who has to reluctantly repent. It is particularly apt when people lose a power struggle but cannot just say sorry; rather, they must bow entirely to the will of the other and debase themselves in the other’s presence.
So Netanyahu showed who has temporal power and illustrated that anyone who tries to pull out of doing business with Israel will eat dirt, right?
Not so fast. King Henry’s trip to Canossa is not just about his subjugation; it is also a cautionary tale. By debasing himself before the pope, Henry forced Gregory’s hand, compelling the pope to absolve him. The king’s legitimacy restored, he became emboldened. The next time Gregory tried to excommunicate him, Henry marched on Italy. He took Rome in 1084 and deposed the pope, who died, defeated, a year later.
As far as I can tell, Stephane Richard has no plan to invade Israel and install a more favorable prime minister. Yet, as a figure in the BDS war, he has now established his credentials as pro-Israel and anti-boycott. A few hours after his apology to Netanyahu, he refused to commit unequivocally in an interview on Israeli TV that Orange would not pull out of Israel eventually. But after that meeting with Netanyahu, who can question Orange if it breaks off its relationship with Partner a few years hence?
In going to Jerusalem, Stephane Richard may have set a new pattern: Declare your loyalty to Israel, but eventually act in your company’s best interest, with your credentials remaining impeccable. For now, Israel has the upper hand in the BDS war. But with no end in sight to the occupation, the first cracks in its authority are showing.
Steven Klein is an editor at Haaretz and an adjunct professor at Tel Aviv University's International Program in Conflict Resolution and Mediation. Follow him @stevekhaaretz.