Stephane Richard: Orange in Israel to stay

Orange has clarified it intends to honor its contract with Israel’s Partner Communications, set to expire in 2025.

June 6, 2015 16:58
3 minute read.
French telecom operator Orange Chairman and CEO Stephane Richard

French telecom operator Orange Chairman and CEO Stephane Richard speaks during the company's 2014 annual results presentation in Paris. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Orange plans to continue its business ties with Israel, CEO Stephane Richard, who heads the French telecommunications company, affirmed on Saturday as he back-pedaled comments he had made to the contrary a few days earlier.

“Let me make it very clear that the Orange Group is in Israel to stay,” Richard said in an email to AFP. “Orange does not support any form of boycott, in Israel or anywhere else in the world.”

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He sent the message after a speech in Cairo on Wednesday, in which he said he would terminate his company’s contract with its Israeli subsidiary, Partner Communications, “tomorrow” if he could.

His words immediately sparked fears that Orange was about to boycott Israel as a response to the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians and was seen as part of a larger effort to delegitimize Israel by supporters of the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement.

In a statement he sent to a high-level meeting of Jewish philanthropists and organizations in Las Vegas on Friday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu committed to combating the BDS movement.

The meeting was sponsored by business magnates Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban, a leading shareholder in Partner Communications.

“Delegitimization of Israel is a major challenge facing the Jewish people and the Jewish state,” Netanyahu said.

A call to boycott the Jewish state, he said, “is not about this or that Israeli policy. It’s about our right to exist here as a free people.”

“Israel, the most embattled democracy on earth, that seeks a genuine peace while fending off the forces of barbaric terrorism, deserves their support,” Netanyahu said.

His government, he added, “is committed to launching assertive and innovative programs and to joining you and many others around the world to combat the lies and slander that are leveled against us.

“Just in the last week, there was an attempt to throw Israel out of FIFA,” soccer’s international governing body, said Netanyahu. He added that in addition, the National Union of Students in the UK voted to support boycotting Israel.

France, which owns a 25-percent stake in Orange, sought to distance itself on Friday from any attempt to boycott Israel.

“While it is up to the president of the Orange Group to define the commercial strategy of its company, France is firmly opposed to any boycott of Israel,” Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in a statement.

Still, Israel plans to hold high-level conversations with France on the matter, according to an official.

To help calm the waters, Orange’s Richard also called Vice Premier Silvan Shalom to apologize and told him that he was a “friend of Israel.”

In a post on his Facebook page, Shalom said Richard explained that he had been referring to economic issues with the contract with Partner that had been misunderstood and taken out of context.

Richard also tweeted the following message on Friday, “Affected & sorry about the controversy. @orange is not doing politics & cares about Israel.”

But Partner Communications, which in March signed a 10-year branding license with Orange, said it was not assuaged by Richard’s words.

In a statement the company issued Saturday night, it said it had asked to speak directly with Richard.

At no point, the company said, has it heard any complaints from Orange about the March contract, nor have any issues been raised with regard to that document, it said. The company added that Richard’s statement on Wednesday continued to cause harm to the Orange brand in Israel and to the citizens of the country.

In Washington, Marie Harf, the State Department’s senior adviser for strategic communications, said that “as a matter of principle, the US opposes boycotts directed at the State of Israel.” In an interview with Channel 2 on Saturday, Saban warned Orange or any other company against any boycott attempts against Israel.

“One thing is for sure, this is not over, this is the beginning,” he said. “Any company that choses to boycott businesses in Israel is going to look at this case, and once we are done they are going to think twice if they want to take on Israel or not.”

Both Saban and Adelson said that the fight against BDS in the US was a bipartisan one.

“When it comes to Israel we are on the same page,” Saban said.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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