Is Orange Really the New Blackshirt?

Wow!  A lot going on in both the BDS and anti-BDS universes this last week.

I’m going to focus on the BDS-related story that’s created the most news and havoc all year, statements (albeit conflicting ones) regarding the European telecom provider Orange and their Israeli customers/partners.  And, in a subsequent piece, I’ll take a look at a pair of high-profile anti-BDS efforts also announced recently.

At the heart of the Orange story, there seems to rest a relatively mundane (i.e., non-political) decision by the global TelCo giant to try to get out of a business relationship with an Israeli company which has been acting as licensee for the Orange product line and brand.

The fact that Orange does not operate under similar licensing arrangement in other countries signals that the Israeli partnership might have been an anomaly (although not atypical for companies interested in pushing the overhead of working in small complex markets onto local partners).  And if (as Orange announced) their general business direction is to bring all international operations “in-house,” then a decision to work directly in Israel vs. through a partner can hardly be seen as a boycott move (political or otherwise).

The situation was made more complex, however, when the company’s CEO – Stephane Richard – made statements on Egyptian TV which implied he could not wait to get out of the Israeli market, and that this strong desire was based on political wishes near and dear to the hearts of Egyptians (not to mention Orange’s other clients in the Arab world) to see the Jewish state punished economically for political reasons.

Now it’s kind of a toss-up whether one should suspect a European CEO vs. the Egyptian media as being more duplicitous.  But once the latter broadcast the former’s words in a way that made them seem like support for a boycott (leading, unsurprisingly, to global outrage), Richards and his company released a torrent of official statements implying that no one had ever heard of BDS, and that Orange would never boycott a Jewish market they loved with all their individual and collective corporate hearts.

With benefit of a few days of perspective, there are a few things to be learned from this still-unfolding story.

First, as much as I loathe the media boost the BDSers get when one of their manufactured controversies goes viral, politically and economically the Orange controversy seems to indicate that safeguards against corporations participating in anti-Israel boycott and divestment activity that began with US anti-boycott legislation in the 1970s seem to be working.

After all, unlike genuine boycott and divestment programs (such as the one against Apartheid South Africa which the BDSers like to pretend they are heir to), a company saying something that can be interpreted as giving the thumbs up to an anti-Israel boycott move is not showered with praise but buried in opprobrium, leading not to momentum-building support but embarrassing apologies.

While fast condemnation by Israel and its friends certainly hastened the aforementioned clarifications and apologies, so did the fact that major corporations (unlike food coops and obscure academic associations) have lawyers (who understand the ins and outs of anti-boycott law) and mechanisms for accountability, including a CEO who must report to a board of directors who are in turn accountable to shareholders.  And I would guess that a lot of people up and down that chain were asking why an executive hired to increase the value of their global brand was instead generating a week of controversial (and mostly condemnatory) headlines.

And if a global brand can be damaged by even the perception of support for BDS, that’s a strong indication that other corporations will learn from Richard’s experience that taking Omar Barghoutti’s phone calls comes at a price.

Another reason this might be considered good news is that recent events (notably the bandwagon of anti-BDS legislation passing in US state houses) could have paved the way for more corporate CEO-types to profess their support for boycott and divestment (in order to appease local constituents and non-Israeli Middle East customers), using American legislation as an excuse to refuse to act on those supportive words.  But if the Orange story teaches anything to executives running companies operating in global markets, it says that publically sucking up Egyptian political sensibilities (or the equivalent) at the expense of Israel is not cost free.

And “publicly” is all that really matters when it comes to BDS success or failure.  For many companies over the years have chosen to not participate in the small Israeli market for fear of pissing off the much larger Arab one.  But those choices are treated (internally and externally) as what they are: business decisions that carry no political or moral weight (except, perhaps, as demonstrating kinship between greed and cowardice).

This doesn’t mean that the boycotters won’t read into those decisions anything they want to include in their latest press releases and Tweets.  But unless we should also be treating the massive investment other companies are making in the Jewish state (and not in neighboring states or territories) as political statements condemning Arab nations, the PA or Hamas, we return to a formula that should be applied to any situation where the BDSers are demanding we hail their latest triumph: Prove It!

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