Orange in Israel ‘for good’: CEO
The chairman of Orange said Saturday that the French telecoms group is in Israel “to stay” after a row erupted over the group’s plan to review its business ties with an Israeli telecoms firm.
Stephane Richard told AFP he “sincerely regrets” the furore sparked Wednesday when he said that Orange would end its brand-licensing agreement with Partner, Israel’s second largest mobile operator.
A furious Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had slammed the decision by Orange, which is part state-owned, as “miserable.”
Although the Orange boss said earlier this week that the move was not political, his remarks in Cairo came after the publication on May 6 of a report accusing the telecoms giant of indirectly supporting Jewish settlement activity through its relationship with Partner.
Compiled by five mainly French NGOs and two trade unions, the report accused Partner of building on confiscated Palestinian land, and urged Orange to cut business ties and publicly declare its desire to avoid contributing to the economic viability of the settlements.
The international community regards all Israeli construction on Palestinian land seized during the 1967 Six-Day War as illegal.
The Orange boss’s comments this week touched a raw nerve in Israel, which is growing increasingly concerned about global boycott efforts and the impact on its image abroad.
“Orange does not support any form of boycott, in Israel or anywhere else in the world,” Richard told AFP in an email.
“Our decision on the use of the brand is motivated — as it is all over the world — solely by our brand strategy,” he said.
“Let me make it very clear that the Orange Group is in Israel to stay.”
He noted that Orange is present in Israel through two subsidiaries, Orange Business Services and Viaccess-Orca, a specialist in Internet television.
– ‘We love Israel’ –
Orange and Partner agreed in April to have their previously open-ended licence expire on March 31, 2025.
But in Cairo, Richard told reporters: “Our intention is to withdraw from Israel. It will take time” but “for sure we will do it”.
“I am ready to do this tomorrow morning… but without exposing Orange to huge risks.”
Richard insists that it was a purely business decision, not political.
But a statement issued by Partner on Saturday dismissed his latest conciliatory comments, and said it was outraged that he had not been in contact with them himself.
“The recent statements… are nothing more than a smokescreen, the object of which is to manipulate public opinion in Israel and the world,” Saturday’s statement said, slamming what it called Richard’s “offensive statements, apologies and vague and evasive expressions”.
“Partner wishes to stress that we have to this day received no official communication (from Orange),” it said.
“We demand direct dialogue with… Stephane Richard, who until now has avoided speaking directly with (this) company; inexplicable conduct in our eyes.”
The spat came after a high-profile diplomatic row in December when French lawmakers voted in favour of recognising Palestine as a state.
France’s top diplomat Laurent Fabius also said that Paris and the European Union “have a consistent policy on settlement-building that is known to all”.
Fabius stepped in on Friday with an apparent bid to calm the row sparked by Orange’s decision.
“Although it is for the president of the Orange group to determine the commercial strategy of the company, France is firmly opposed to a boycott of Israel,” he said.
Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely hailed Fabius’s statement.
“I welcome the French administration’s renunciation of any kind of boycott against Israel. The position of not accepting boycotts and smear campaigns is significant and strong in Europe as well,” she said.
Richard meanwhile sought to soothe frayed nerves by declaring in Israel’s Yediot Aharonot newspaper, “We love Israel.”
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