PARIS: The chairman of Orange said this weekend that the French telecoms group was in Israel “to stay” as a row raged over the group’s plan to review its business ties with an Israeli telecoms firm.
Stephane Richard told Agence France-Presse he “sincerely regrets” the furore sparked Wednesday when he said in Cairo that Orange would end its brand-licensing agreement with Partner, Israel’s second-largest mobile operator.
The Orange boss’s comments touched a raw nerve in Israel, which is growing increasingly concerned about global boycott efforts and the impact on its image abroad.
A furious Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slammed the move by France’s part state-owned telecoms group as “miserable.”
The Orange boss said earlier this week that the move was not political, but his Cairo remarks came after the May 6 publication 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.
In a statement to Agence France-Presse on Saturday, Richard reiterated that Orange’s review of its ties with Partner were not political.
“Orange does not support any form of boycott, in Israel or anywhere else in the world,” Richard told Agence France-Presse in an e-mail.
“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.
Partner demands ‘direct dialogue’
Orange and Partner agreed in April to have their previously open-ended licence expire on March 31, 2025.
But Partner issued a statement late Saturday dismissing Richard’s latest conciliatory comments, saying 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,” the 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 follows a high-profile diplomatic row in December when lawmakers in France–which supports the European Union’s opposition to settlement-building–voted in favour of recognising Palestine as a state.
French Foreign Minister Laurent 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.”