JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday denounced the French telecom giant Orange SA for announcing it will sever business ties with the Jewish state, highlighting a wave of public anger over the Palestinian movement to boycott Israel.
Netanyahu spoke a day after Orange’s CEO, Stephane Richard, said in Cairo that he would end his company’s relationship with Partner Communications Ltd. “tomorrow” if he could, but that he was bound by a contract for the time being. He cited the company’s sensitivity to Arab countries. Partner licenses the Orange brand name in Israel.
The announcement set off an uproar in Israel.
An angry Netanyahu called on the French government to “distance itself publicly from the miserable statement and the miserable action of a company that is partially owned by the government of France.”
“The absurd drama in which the democracy that observes human rights — the state of Israel — and which defends itself from barrages of missiles and terrorist tunnels, and then absorbs automatic condemnations and attempted boycotts, this absurd drama will not be forgiven,” Netanyahu said.
“At the same time, I call on our friends to unconditionally declare, in a loud and clear voice, that they oppose any kind of boycott of the state of the Jews,” he added.
French human rights groups and Palestinian activists have been pushing for Orange to end the relationship over Partner’s activities in Israeli settlements. The settlements, built on land the Palestinians want for a future state, are seen as illegitimate by the international community.
Earlier Thursday, Culture Minister Miri Regev called on the French government to “show zero tolerance for anti-Semitism.” She also urged Jewish customers of Orange in France and around the world to drop their service and switch carriers.
In a statement issued in Paris, Orange sought to clarify that it wants to pull out of Israel for business reasons, not political ones.
The company said it doesn’t want to maintain a presence in countries where Orange itself is not a phone provider, and that the move is “in conformity with its brand policy.” Orange said it “has no reason to take part … in a debate of a political nature.”
With Richard’s comments, Orange appeared to becoming the largest and best-known company to yield to pressure from a global movement calling for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel, the so-called BDS movement.
Israeli officials say the BDS movement is not out to promote peace, but instead aims to “delegitimize” the country’s very existence as a Jewish state.
Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Tzippi Hotovely, sent a letter to Richard asking him to clarify his comments. “I appeal to you to refrain from being party to the industry of lies which unfairly targets Israel and eagerly await your response,” she wrote.
The French government, which has good relations with Israel, holds a 13.45 percent stake in Orange.
Associated Press Writers Ian Deitch in Jerusalem and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.
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