The Unilever chief executive on Thursday said the global consumer goods giant remains “fully committed” to doing business in Israel, distancing itself from this week’s announcement of ice cream brand Ben & Jerry’s to cease serving Israeli settlements in the occupied territories of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
But CEO Alan Jope has given no indication that Unilever will force Ben & Jerry’s to reverse its controversial decision.
Ben & Jerry’s announcement is one of a well-known company’s strongest moves against Israeli settlements, which are widely viewed by the international community as illegal. The Israeli government condemned the move, accusing the company of joining a Palestinian-led boycott campaign against Israel. He urged 35 US states with anti-boycott laws to punish Unilever.
On a conference call with investors, Jope said Ben & Jerry’s, who have a long history of social activism, made the decision on their own.
He noted that under Unilever’s purchase agreement with Ben & Jerry’s in 2000, the iconic ice cream company maintained broad independence over its social justice policies and that Unilever honored this arrangement. .
“Obviously, this is a complex and sensitive issue that arouses very strong feelings,” he said. “If there is one message I want to underline in this appeal, it is that Unilever remains fully engaged in our activities in Israel.
This includes a new 35 million euro ($ 41 million) razor factory, offices and facilities that employ some 2,000 people, hundreds of millions of dollars in investment and support for ‘social programs’, did he declare.
Jope said “it is not our intention” to regularly delve into such sensitive issues.
“It’s a long-standing problem for Ben & Jerry’s,” he added. “We were aware of this decision from the brand and its independent board of directors, but it is certainly not our intention that every quarter has one as fiery as this one.”
It was not yet clear whether his comments would calm the outcry in Israel.
The country’s new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, said earlier this week that he had spoken to Jope about what he called a “clearly anti-Israel measure”.
Bennett, a former leader of the West Bank settlements movement, said Thursday that Israel “will use whatever tools it has – including legal ones – on this issue” and that those who boycott Israel “must know there will be a price. to pay ” .
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 in southern Israel, not in a settlement, which means it targets consumers, as opposed to a production facility.
The Palestinians claim the two 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 region to be part of its undivided capital. He says the West Bank is contested territory whose fate must be resolved in peace talks.
But the international community largely regards the two areas as occupied territories and regards the settlements, which are home to some 700,000 Israelis, as illegal under international law.
In its statement, Ben & Jerry’s sought to differentiate between Israel and the occupied lands, saying it would continue to produce ice cream inside Israel through a “different arrangement.” But he gave no further details and said he would end his production deal with his longtime Israeli licensee at the end of next year.
Separating Israel and its settlements will be difficult. Israeli supermarket chains, a primary distribution channel for Ben & Jerry’s, operate in the settlements. Israeli law also prevents local businesses from boycotting settlements.
Israel does not distinguish between settlements and the rest of its territory. When home rental company Airbnb announced in 2018 that it would no longer list properties in West Bank settlements, Israel harshly condemned the move and ultimately pressured the company to reverse the decision.
Israel’s Ambassador to the United States and the United Nations Gilad Erdan this week sent a letter to governors of 35 U.S. states urging them to punish Unilever under anti-boycott laws.
On Thursday, he joined Bennett to welcome a delegation of foreign diplomats. Erdan said he was enlisting diplomats in the fight against what he called “anti-Israel discrimination” on the international stage.
The dispute has made the Israeli ice cream market the latest front in Israel’s long battle against the BDS movement, a popular Palestinian-led campaign that promotes boycotts, divestment and sanctions against businesses, cultural institutions. and Israeli 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 non-violent message 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 to delegitimize and destroy the country. Some have expressed concern that Ben & Jerry’s, whose founders are both Jewish, may prompt other companies to follow suit.
Some supporters of Israel, however, said the move should be a wake-up call to half-century’s settlement policies in the occupied lands.
“When a large ice cream company originally founded by two Jewish entrepreneurs decides not to sell its products in the occupied territories, it is not anti-Semitism,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, chairman of the group. of pro-Israel US liberal lobbying firm J. Rue.
“The fight against anti-Semitism would be greatly facilitated if the Israeli government and American Jewish leaders stopped using the term against those who distinguish in principle and rationally between business transactions in the State of Israel and those in the State of Israel. territory it occupies. ,” he said.