Opinion

How Did Ronald McDonald Become the Scourge of West Bank Settlers?

The burger chain is being accused of discriminating against them by not opening restaurants over the Green Line. It’s a worrying politicization of Israeli business

A McDonald's restaurant at the central bus station in Tiberias, Israel, August 2011.
Gil Eliahu

The organizations and politicians calling for McDonald’s Israel to face a government crackdown and a consumer boycott want you to think that settlers are an oppressed and marginalized minority. Don’t be fooled.

In the 25 or so years McDonald’s has been present in Israel, it has never opened a restaurant over the Green Line. It is by no means the only Israeli business to shun the settlements, but instead of hiding behind “business considerations” as many other companies do, McDonald’s local franchise holder Omri Padan has had the courage to say so explicitly.

The settlers and other rightists long ignored this affront to the Greater Land of Israel, but it seems those days are over. With all the talk of annexation, triumphalism is in the air and the last remnants of opposition to the settlement enterprise can now be quashed.

Economy and Industry Minister Eli Cohen is seeking to bar McDonald’s from bidding for a fat contract to run restaurants at Ben-Gurion International Airport, asserting that McDonald’s Israel policy is in violation of the 2011 boycott law. He’s been joined by at least one Likud lawmaker and by Yossi Dagan, chairman of the Samaria Regional Council in the West Bank.

On the street the campaign has gone a step farther, with a shadowy organization called the Forum of Disabled IDF Veteran for Israel’s Security waging a consumer boycott of McDonald’s and threatening to target other businesses.

Big Mac attack

The rightist Big Mac attack is no any more likely to succeed than the international BDS movement’s boycott of Israel. Just as few Americans or Europeans are dedicated enough to Palestinian rights or are so filled with loathing for Israel that they’ll take the trouble not to buy Israeli products, there are very few Israelis likely to give up a burger and shake just to score a few points for historic Jewish rights to Judea and Samaria.

But McDonald’s is vulnerable to legal action because, among other things, the law empowers the finance minister to prevent companies publicly calling for a boycott of Israel and/or any area under Israeli control.

Now, imagine if Omri Padan had openly declared he would not open a McDonald’s in an Arab town (for the record, he has done no such thing and the chain has outlets in several Israeli Arab cities).  It beggars the imagination that any rightist activist would express outrage that the moral case against discrimination is not an agenda item.

The campaign being waged against McDonald’s in effect says that by depriving settlers of a Big Mac within an easy drive of their homes is like refusing (in the Israeli context) to hire an Arab or (in the American context) to countenance a black family moving in next door.

That is misleading to say the least because boycotting settlements is not the same as boycotting a racial or national group because of who they are; it’s about boycotting the politics they represent.

The settlements aren’t legally a part of Israel, and as much as annexationists try to present their cause as a kind of Israeli Manifest Destiny, only a minority of Israelis support it.

The status of the settlements is part of an ongoing political debate in which both sides should be free to take a political and moral stand.

Businesses should be free to make business decisions free of political interference.

The fact that that Israeli government chose to take one side of the political debate, through the boycott law, was wrong. But to its credit, it has until now never seriously enforced its terms. The McDonald’s affair threatens to change all that.

Omri Padan is an easy target because he’s made his views known. But the fact is, very few big Israeli businesses have any presence in the settlements and many of the handful that did, like SodaStream and Unilever Israel, have pulled out. They’ve done so even though the business incentives are compelling -- Palestinian labor is cheap, the govenrment offers tax breaks and (for retailers) the settlers are an attractive market of middle class consumers with money to spend.

If the McDonald’s campaign gains traction and the issue about who does or doesn’t do business over the Green Line enters the realm of politics and street protests, every company will face the threat of being held up to scrutiny -- not in the form of a consumer boycott but more likely as an elaborate shadow-boxing exercise by rightist activists and the politicians anxious for their support.

This is how it will work, as the McDonald’s affair suggests: A business is targeted, a social media campaign is launched, maybe a few demonstrations are staged, angry denunciations are made in the Knesset.

The company itself doesn’t suffer any loss of sales, but it’s nervous and doesn’t want to be in the public eye on such a contentious issue. So it promises to open a store, restaurant or factory in a settlement to buy quiet at home even as it risks finding themselves targeted by the international BDS movement in the process.

If this all seems improbable, just look at the U.S. where the scenario plays out over and over again, usually over issues of race and gender. Business has become another front in the culture wars. Israel will be worse off for following the example.