by Joseph Federman | The Associated Press
JERUSALEM — Israel’s prime minister on Tuesday vowed to “act aggressively” against Ben & Jerry’s decision to stop selling its ice cream in Israeli-occupied territories, as the country’s ambassador to the US told dozens of state governors. urged to penalize the company under the adversary. Boycott laws.
The strong response reflected concerns in Israel that the ice cream maker’s decision may prompt other companies to follow suit. It also appears to set the stage for a protracted public relations and legal battle.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s office said he spoke with Alan Jopp, chief executive of Ben & Jerry’s parent company Unilever, and raised concerns about what he called a “clearly anti-Israeli move”. He said the move would have “serious consequences, legal and otherwise,” and that Israel would “act aggressively against all boycott actions directed against its citizens.”
In Washington, State Department spokesman Ned Price declined to comment directly on the company’s decision. But he said the US rejected the boycott movement against Israel, saying it “wrongly excludes” the country.
In Monday’s announcement, Ben & Jerry’s said it would stop selling ice cream in the occupied West Bank and would contest from East Jerusalem. The company, known for its social activism, said such sales were “not in line with our values.”
The statement was one of the strongest rebukes by a high-profile company of Israel’s settlement policies in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which it controlled for more than half a century after its capture in the 1967 Middle East War.
Palestinians claim both territories as part of a future independent state, with broad international support. Israeli settlements, which are now home to some 700,000 Israelis, are widely seen as illegal and obstacles to peace.
Israel annexed East Jerusalem after the 1967 war and considers the entire city as its undivided capital, although the merger is not recognized internationally. It says the West Bank is disputed territory and says its final status must be resolved in negotiations. However, the international community widely considers both regions to be occupied territories.
In its statement, Ben & Jerry’s said it had informed its longtime Israeli partner that it would not renew its license agreement when it expires at the end of 2022.
Noting that it would not serve Israeli-occupied territories, it said it would continue to provide ice cream in Israel “through a different arrangement”. Several companies, notably the beverage company SodaStream, have closed factories in the occupied West Bank, but some have targeted Israeli consumers living there.
It’s unclear how Ben & Jerry’s planned to do this. The Israeli supermarket chain, a primary distribution channel for the cleverly named flavors of ice cream, operates in settlements, and under Israeli law, people or companies boycotting the settlements can be prosecuted.
On the global stage, Israel does not differentiate between settlements and the rest of the country. When home-rental company Airbnb announced in 2018 that it would no longer list properties in West Bank settlements, Israel strongly condemned the move as part of a wider Palestinian-led boycott movement against Israel.
Israel’s Minister of Strategic Affairs at the time, Gilad Erden, encouraged Israelis hurt by the decision to sue Airbnb. Several months later, following continued criticism of Israel and a US federal lawsuit filed by Israeli Americans, the company reversed course.
Erden, now Israel’s ambassador to the US, said on Tuesday that he had sent a letter to the governors of 35 states that have passed laws against anti-Israel boycott activity.
“Prompt and firm action must be taken to counter such discriminatory and anti-Semitic actions,” he wrote. “We must stand united and send a clear message that this will not be tolerated.”
But some supporters of Israel also said the company is on solid ground.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the moderate pro-Israeli group J-Street, said that it was not anti-Semitic to differentiate between Israel and the settlements on the occupied territory.
“Instead of attacking and attacking companies and individuals for making principled decisions,” he said, “these leaders will contribute more to the fight against anti-Semitism by helping to bring unjust and harmful business to a peaceful end.”
The controversy has turned Israel’s ice cream market into the latest front in Israel’s long-running fight against the BDS movement, a Palestinian-led grassroots campaign that calls for boycotts, divestments and sanctions against Israeli businesses, cultural institutions and universities. promotes.
BDS organizers say they are protesting Israeli persecution of Palestinians in a campaign based on the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Its nonviolent message has resonated with audiences around the world, including on many American college campuses.
But Israel says the movement has a deeper agenda that aims to illegalize and destroy the country.
BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti said the movement had been urging Ben & Jerry’s to exit Israel for years. He called his decision “quite important”.
“It shows you can’t do business with an apartheid state without collusion,” he said. “We expect more socially responsible companies to follow suit, perhaps less publicly.
Unilever, which acquired Ben & Jerry’s in 2000, appeared on Tuesday to distance itself from the ice cream maker. In a statement, Unilever noted that under the purchase agreement, it recognized Ben & Jerry’s independence and “the right to make decisions about its social mission.”
“We are fully committed to our presence in Israel, where we have invested in our people, brands and business for many decades.”
Despite such assurances, the global company may be vulnerable to US state laws banning anti-Israel boycott activity, said Eugene Kontorovich, a professor at George Mason University’s Scalia Law School.
Kontorovich, who consulted with lawmakers in some states that have adopted the laws, said he sees the anti-Israeli boycott as a form of discrimination. Violating these laws, he said, could make both Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever ineligible for state contracts or prompt states to drop Unilever’s shares from large pension funds.
“They can see that mixing ice cream and anti-Israeli politics may not be the best idea,” he said.
The fight is against the backdrop of changing American attitude towards Israel. Where Israel once enjoyed solid bipartisan support in the US, the country has turned into a divisive issue in recent years, with Republicans strongly backing it and Democrats, especially young liberal voters, increasingly supporting Palestinians. Huh.
Several factors have fueled the trend, including former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s close alliance with former President Donald Trump.
Michael Oren, who served as Netanyahu’s ambassador to the US, said the trends were worrying for Israel.
Although he said the Ben & Jerry’s decision posed no immediate threat to Israel’s strong economy, he said the boycott movement could contribute to a “continued erosion of Israel’s legitimacy”.
“Our enemies know they can’t destroy us with all those missiles,” he told reporters. “They can destroy us financially through sanctions and boycotts. And that’s where BDS becomes a long-term threat.”
AP correspondent Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.