PMO incensed at SodaStream CEO’s blame over lapsed Palestinian work permits

Birnbaum wrote letter in December pledging not to ask for additional extension for temporary permits for 74 Palestinian workers.

A Palestinian employee works at the SodaStream factory [File] (photo credit: REUTERS)
A Palestinian employee works at the SodaStream factory [File]
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is responsible for 74 Palestinians losing their jobs at SodaStream, not the government, an official in the Prime Minister’s Office said on Thursday.
The official was angry that the company’s CEO was blaming Israel for the plight of the workers.
SodaStream moved its plant from Mishor Adumim in Judea to Lehavim, near Beersheba, last autumn following intensive BDS pressure. Seventy-four veteran Palestinian employees who commuted to work within the Green Line after the company moved lost their jobs this week when the government did not renew their permits to enter Israel proper.
SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum went on the warpath, accusing the government and the Prime Minister’s Office of cruel bureaucratic callousness, as well as playing into the hands of those who want to besmirch Israel.
The new Negev plant employs around 1,200 workers.
Some 500 Palestinians lost their jobs when the Mishor Adumim factory closed, but 74 who had families were given temporary permits to work at the Lehavim plant.
“I cannot believe that a Jewish administration would ask me to send children to their hunger,” Birnbaum told The Jerusalem Post earlier this week.
“This has been the most difficult and sad day of my life. I’m the son of a Holocaust survivor.
I cannot watch this disregard for human dignity.”
In another media interview, he said the matter had “nothing to do” with BDS.
“It has everything to do with the Israeli government,” he said. “I hope someone in the government will step up and correct the idiocy in the bureaucracy.”
One official in the Prime Minister’s Office, outraged by the accusations, said that when the plant was located in Mishor Adumim, across the Green Line, it could employ as many Palestinians as it wanted.
“But because of BDS, they made a decision to relocate into the Negev,” the official said. “This is a perfectly legitimate decision, sad, but legitimate.
I empathize with the company’s plight, and this move was a victory of BDS over coexistence.”
Once the company moved to the Negev, the official continued, it became subject to Israeli law, which has strict limits and quotas on foreign workers.
“Because of a shortage of engineers, we are now jumping through hoops to allow a few hundred Indian engineers to be brought to Israel so that the tech industry doesn’t suffer,” the official said. “But this is a serious policy decision that takes weeks and sometimes months to evaluate and enact.”
Israel, the official said, has a quota for Palestinian workers.
That number is currently around 60,000, but most is for construction, not industrial plants.
“SodaStream knew that, but when it moved they put in a special request – in order to ensure stability and continuity in the company – for special temporary permits for the 74 workers,” the official continued.
“We agreed. Then they approached us in November and asked for another extension. We went above and beyond, and gave another extension.”
At the time, the official said, Birnbaum wrote a letter pledging that this would be the last extension he would ask for. The letter, dated December 28, 2015, says: “Relative to the request that arrived today from the Population and Immigration Authority, I am willing to commit that I will not ask for an additional extension for 74 Palestinian workers beyond February 28, 2016. I declare that I see this extension as final.”
The letter continued: “In the event that the government of Israel will want us to continue to employ ‘ambassadors’ of Israel to the world media in our war against BDS boycotts, we will weigh that in accordance with our business needs at that time.”
Now that the extensions are up, Birnbaum is applying pressure to extend them again – despite his commitment not to do so – by blaming the government, the official said.
“Our policy is to give priority to Israeli workers,” the official added.
“It is not just by chance that Israel has the lowest unemployment rate in the OECD. We do prioritize.
There are plenty of Beduin in the Negev. To claim that this is about the ‘bungling Israeli bureaucracy’ is an out and out lie. This is about BDS,” he said.
“What SodaStream is doing is talking about the coexistence they want,” he went on. “They had wonderful coexistence in Mishor Adumim. The reason it was destroyed is because of BDS. Why is he [Birnbaum] so passionate about letting BDS off the hook?” The official said that after months of granting the temporary permits to let the company get back on track in its new location, there was no reason to allow it to employ cheaper Palestinian labor when other factories, such as those belonging to Osem, Coca-Cola and Tnuva, would like to do the same, but do not receive permission.
“SodaStream has to abide by Israeli law like other companies,” the official said. “We are not holding them to a different standard, but we are also not going to reward them for giving in to BDS.... What they are asking for is that after BDS forced them into the Negev, they want to give it another victory by violating Israel’s policy and allowing in more Palestinians at the expense of Israeli workers.”
The official, who stressed that he empathized with the plight of the company, said: “I do believe that SodaStream was a great island of coexistence. It was a tragedy that they were forced to move. But let’s not give BDS a pass. It is responsible, not the Israeli government, nor ‘idiocy’ nor ‘red tape.’” Birnbaum, in response, told the Post that “the only thing this has to do with [BDS leader] Omar Barghouti is that [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is serving him a victory, and as an Israeli, that infuriates me.”
Birnbaum said that construction of the Lehavim plant began in 2010 because the company had outgrown the Mishor Adumim plant, not because of BDS.
“We moved plants from China, Turkey and the Galilee here to create Israeli jobs. They’re just inventing crap and squirming to get out of this uncomfortable position that they [the government] got themselves into,” he said.
He also pushed back against the government’s position that strict quotas were necessary to ensure that jobs went to Israelis, saying that the plant’s move to Lehavim added 500 Israeli jobs and made it the largest employer in the Beduin city of Rahat.
BDS , Birnbaum said, was celebrating the government’s decision as a victory, and calling the Palestinian job losses a necessary sacrifice toward achieving its goals.
The SodaStream CEO said he signed the December letter pledging not to ask for an additional extension of the permits out of duress, because he was faced with having to fire the employees and wanted to help them keep their jobs for another two months.
Not extending the permits past February 28, he said, was a self-inflicted PR wound for Israel. The Foreign Ministry, he added, had promoted videos on its social media sites of SodaStream’s Palestinian workers – some of the same workers who have now been denied working permits – talking about coexistence.