Israel’s Prime Minister has attacked the boss of the French telecom giant Orange for looking to pull out of a deal with an Israeli partner.
On Wednesday, Orange CEO Stephane Richard said he would back out of an agreement with Partner Communications.
Campaign groups say Partner is active in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Benjamin Netanyahu criticised what he called Mr Richard’s “miserable statement”.
Partner controls close to 28% of Israel’s mobile market and while Orange has a licensing deal with Partner, allowing it to use the Orange brand name, it does not have a controlling stake in the company.
On 6 May, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), a Paris-based NGO, said: “Partner is building infrastructure on confiscated Palestinian land and offers services to settlers and the Israeli army.”
Jewish settlements on occupied territory are considered illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this. Neither Israel nor Partner commented on the FIDH report.
The BDS campaign group – that Israel says works to “delegitimise” the state of Israel – had also previously called on Orange to sever its ties with Partner.
At a conference in Cairo on Wednesday, Mr Richard said: “I am ready to abandon this [partnership] tomorrow morning but the point is that I want to secure the legal risk for the company.
“I want to terminate this, once again, but I don’t want to expose Orange to a level of risk and of penalties that could be really sizable for the company.”
Mr Richard said the decision was made because of Orange’s ties to Arab countries. “I know that it is a sensitive issue here in Egypt, but not only in Egypt,” he said.
“We want to be one of the trustful partners of all Arab countries.”
Mr Richard did not directly cite allegations made by the FIDH and BDS groups.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, called for the French government – that has a 13.45% stake in Orange – to act.
“I call 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,” he said.
“Simultaneously, I call on our friends to say in a clear and loud voice that they object to any kind of boycott against the Jewish state.”
The culture minister, Miri Regev, called for Mr Richard to be fired, and the deputy foreign minister, Tzippi Hotovely, in a letter, asked him to clarify his comments.
She said she wanted Mr Richard “to refrain from being party to the industry of lies which unfairly targets Israel”.
Throughout Israel, Orange’s signs were covered with Israeli flags on Thursday and the terms #BoycottOrange and #Orange trended on Twitter in Israel.
On Thursday, the French company sought to clarify its position, and said it “had not intended, in any way, to engage in a political debate”.
A statement (in French) said that Orange no longer wanted to maintain licensing agreements in countries in which it was not the actual operator, and that this was the reason it was looking to withdraw from Israel.
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