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Unilever’s CEO said on Thursday that the global consumer goods giant remains “fully committed” to doing business in Israel, moving away from this week’s announcement by the company’s ice cream brand Ben & Jerry’s to stop serving Israeli settlements in Israel. the occupied territories of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
But CEO Alan Jope gave no indication that Unilever would force Ben & Jerry’s to reverse its controversial decision.
Ben & Jerry’s announcement is one of the strongest moves by a well-known company against Israeli settlements, which the international community considers illegal. The Israeli government has condemned the decision, accusing the company of participating in a Palestinian-led boycott campaign against Israel. It has urged 35 US states with anti-boycott laws to punish Unilever.
In a conference call with investors, Jope said Ben & Jerry’s, which has a long history of social activism, made the decision on its own.
He noted that under Unilever’s purchase agreement with Ben & Jerry’s in 2000, the iconic ice cream company retained broad independence over its social justice policies and that Unilever respected that arrangement.
“It is clearly a complex and sensitive issue that evokes very strong feelings,” he said. “If there is one message I would like to underline in this appeal, it is that Unilever remains fully committed to our operations in Israel.”
That includes a new razor factory worth 35 million euros ($41 million), offices and facilities that employ some 2,000 people, hundreds of millions of dollars in investment and support for “social programs,” he said.
Jope said “it is not our intention” to dive into such sensitive matters on a regular basis.
“It’s been a problem for Ben & Jerry’s for a long time,” he added. “We were aware of this decision by the brand and its independent board of directors, but it is certainly not our intention that every quarter will have one as fervent as this one.”
It remained unclear whether his comments would calm the tumult in Israel.
The country’s new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, said earlier this week that he had spoken to Jope on what he called a “clearly anti-Israel move.”
Bennett, a former leader of the West Bank settlement movement, said on Thursday that Israel would “use the tools at its disposal — including legal ones — on this matter” and that those boycotting Israel “should know that a price will be paid.” .
In its announcement, Ben & Jerry’s said it would stop selling ice cream in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, saying such sales were “inconsistent with our values.”
The company’s factory is located in southern Israel, not in a settlement, meaning it focuses on consumers, as opposed to a manufacturing facility.
Palestinians claim both territories, captured by Israel in the 1967 war, as part of a future independent state.
Israel annexed East Jerusalem after the 1967 war and considers the area an undivided capital. It says the West Bank is a disputed territory whose fate must be resolved in peace talks.
But the international community generally considers both areas occupied and considers the settlements, which are home to some 700,000 Israelis, to be illegal under international law.
In its statement, Ben & Jerry’s attempted to differentiate between Israel and occupied territories, saying it would continue to produce ice cream within Israel through a “different arrangement.” But it gave no further details, saying it would end its production deal with its longtime Israeli licensee by the end of next year.
Separating Israel and its settlements will be difficult. Israeli supermarket chains, an important distribution channel for Ben & Jerry’s, are active in the settlements. Israeli law also prevents local businesses from boycotting the settlements.
Israel makes no distinction between the settlements and the rest of its territory. When housing rental company Airbnb announced in 2018 that it would no longer offer properties in West Bank settlements, Israel sharply condemned the move and eventually pressured the company to cancel the decision.
Israel’s Ambassador to the US and the United Nations, Gilad Erdan, this week sent a letter to the governors of 35 US states, urging them to punish Unilever under anti-boycott laws.
On Thursday, he and Bennett received a delegation of foreign diplomats. Erdan said he engaged diplomats in fighting what he called “anti-Israel discrimination” on the international stage.
The dispute has made Israel’s ice cream market the latest front in Israel’s long-running fight against the BDS movement, a Palestinian-led grassroots campaign that promotes boycotts, divestments and sanctions against Israeli companies, cultural institutions and universities.
BDS organizers say they are protesting what they call Israeli oppression of Palestinians in a campaign modeled on the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. His nonviolent message has resonated with audiences around the world, including on many US college campuses.
— BDS Movement (@BDSmovement) July 19, 2021
But Israel says the movement has a deeper agenda aimed at delegitimizing and destroying the country. Some have expressed concern that Ben & Jerry’s, whose founders are both Jewish, might encourage other companies to follow suit.
However, some supporters of Israel have said the decision should be a wake-up call for half a century of settlement policy in occupied territories.
“If a major ice cream company, originally founded by two Jewish entrepreneurs, decides not to sell its products in the occupied territories, it’s not anti-Semitism,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the liberal American pro-Israel lobby group J. Straat.
“The fight against anti-Semitism would be greatly aided if the Israeli government and American Jewish leaders stopped using the term against those who make a principled and rational distinction between commercial transactions in the State of Israel and those in the territory it occupies. ,” he said.
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