French tele­com firm to end fran­chise in Is­rael

The plan by Or­ange boosts in­ter­na­tional boy­cott ef­fort over poli­cies in West Bank.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Bat­sheva So­bel­man So­bel­man is a spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent.

JERUSALEM — The French tele­com com­pany Or­ange said Thurs­day that it “ul­ti­mately” planned to pull its brand name from Is­rael, giv­ing a boost to an in­ter­na­tional boy­cott move­ment while en­rag­ing the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment and the lo­cal fran­chisee.

In a news re­lease from Paris, the com­pany said it wished to “ul­ti­mately end this brand li­cense agree­ment.” It in­sisted it was mak­ing a busi­ness de­ci­sion, say­ing it did not want to main­tain the brand’s pres­ence in coun­tries where the French com­pany does not ac­tu­ally op­er­ate, as is the case in Is­rael.

The state­ment capped a tense 24 hours af­ter a state­ment by Or­ange Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Stephane Richard at a Cairo news con­fer­ence Wed­nes­day that the com­pany would love to ter­mi­nate “to­mor­row” the con­tract grant­ing the Is­raeli cel­lu­lar com­pany Part­ner Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Ltd. use of the Or­ange brand. He added, how­ever, that the le­gal­i­ties would have to be sorted out or the French com­pany would in­cur stag­ger­ing ex- penses.

Al­ready on the de­fen­sive in the face of an in­ter­na­tional move­ment to boy­cott Is­rael for its poli­cies in the West Bank — in­clud­ing a failed bid to have the coun­try suspended by the in­ter­na­tional soc­cer or­ga­ni­za­tion FIFA and a re­cent Bri­tish Na­tional Union of Stu­dents vote to sup­port the boy­cott move­ment — Is­raeli gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials were in­fu­ri­ated by Richard’s re­marks.

Although the boy­cott move­ment is grow­ing, Richard’s com­ments caught the gov­ern­ment by sur­prise. Deputy For­eign Min­is­ter Tzipi Ho­tovely con­vened an ur­gent meet­ing Wed­nes­day night, af­ter which she sent Richard a let­ter seek­ing clar­i­fi­ca­tion of his com­ments and his com­pany’s pol­icy.

“I ap­peal to you to re­frain from be­ing party to the in­dus­try of lies which un­fairly tar­gets Is­rael,” she wrote.

Is­rael’s am­bas­sador to France, Yossi Gal, sought clar­i­fi­ca­tion from the French gov­ern­ment, which owns 25% of France Tele­com, Or­ange’s par­ent.

In meet­ings with vis­it­ing diplo­mats in re­cent days, Prime Min­is­ter Benjamin Ne­tanyahu re­peat­edly re­jected calls for boy­cott and called them hypocrisy.

The cel­lu­lar car­rier known in Is­rael as Or­ange is in fact Part­ner Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, a wholly Is­raeli com­pany and not a sub­sidiary. Part­ner uses Or­ange’s name and re­lated mar­ket­ing fea­tures such as the logo, ac­cord­ing to the Is­raeli com­pany’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, Haim Ro­mano.

The Is­raeli com­pany em­ploys about 3,500 peo­ple and has nearly 3 mil­lion cus­tomers in a na­tion where nearly 95% of fam­i­lies own at least one cell­phone. Ac­cord­ing to es­ti­mates, Part­ner pays the French com­pany nearly $4 mil­lion a year for use of the Or­ange name, which it may now have to change.

Ac­cord­ing to Richard, a new con­tract was re­cently ne­go­ti­ated that al­lows for early ter­mi­na­tion of the deal.

“We are sur­prised, dis­ap­pointed and very, very an­gry,” Ro­mano said in in­ter­views Thurs­day. Em­pha­siz­ing that the re­newed con­tract al­lowed the Is­raelis use of the brand name for 10 more years, he said his com­pany was weigh­ing legal op­tions in­clud­ing su­ing for fi- nan­cial and other dam­ages it may suf­fer, in­clud­ing pos­si­bly hav­ing to re­brand the Is­raeli com­pany.

“We have a con­tract and we ex­pect it to be kept,” Ro­mano said. “There is no po­lit­i­cal or other rea­son to break it.”

The Is­raeli com­pany’s stock took a small dip in the Tel Aviv Stock Ex­change on Thurs­day.

Sev­eral hun­dred em­ploy­ees at the com­pany head­quar­ters in Rosh Haayin held a sol­i­dar­ity gath­er­ing, wav­ing f lags in sup­port of the com­pany.

But by evening Or­ange had an­nounced its in­tent to sever ties with the Is­raeli com­pany.

“I will not be de­terred by threats,” Part­ner owner Haim Sa­ban said Thurs­day. The Egyptian-born, Is­raeli Amer­i­can bil­lion­aire said the com­pany was con­sid­er­ing its legal moves and promised to con­tinue work­ing in and for Is­rael.

In Tel Aviv, Ne­tanyahu said Is­rael would not for­give the “ab­surd drama” of be­ing pe­nal­ized for de­fend­ing it­self against ter­ror­ism.

He urged the French gov­ern­ment to “pub­licly re­pu­di­ate the mis­er­able state­ment and mis­er­able ac­tion by a com­pany un­der its par­tial own­er­ship” and called sym­pa­thetic coun­tries to un­equiv­o­cally de­clare they re­ject any boy­cotting of Is­rael.

‘We have a con­tract and we ex­pect it to be kept. There is no po­lit­i­cal or other rea­son to break it.’

— Haim Ro­mano, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Or­ange’s fran­chisee in Is­rael

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