Israel’s prime minister on Tuesday promised to act “aggressively” on Ben & Jerry’s decision to stop selling its ice cream in Israeli-occupied territories when the country’s ambassador to the United States urged dozen of state governors to seek anti-boycott of the company. Punish laws.
The strong reaction reflected concerns in Israel that the ice cream maker’s decision could lead other companies to follow suit. It also appeared to set the stage for lengthy public relations and litigation.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s office said he had spoken to Alan Jope, chairman of the board of Ben & Jerry’s parent company Unilever, and expressed concern about a “clearly anti-Israel move”. He said the move would have “serious consequences, legal and otherwise,” and that Israel would “act aggressively against any boycotts 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 opposes the boycott movement against Israel, saying it is “unjustly singling out” the country.
Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations and the United States, Gilad Erdan, sent letters to 35 governors whose states have laws against the boycott of Israel asking them to oppose the Ben & Jerry decision and take any other relevant steps including regarding your state laws and the commercial relationship between Ben & Jerry’s and your state. “
Erdan said Israel viewed the company’s decision as “de facto adopting anti-Semitic practices and promoting the delegitimization of the Jewish state and the dehumanization of the Jewish people.”
“With the Arab nations renouncing their decades-long boycott of the Jewish state and signing peace agreements with Israel, and as cultural and economic cooperation in our region grows, American companies with radical ideological agendas must not be allowed to violate US policies.” and act against normalization and peace, “wrote Erdan.” In addition, the past has shown that the citizens of Israel are never the only ones who suffer from such boycotts, as they also cause considerable harm to the Palestinians. “
In Monday’s announcement, Ben & Jerry’s announced that they would stop selling ice cream in the occupied West Bank and fight for East Jerusalem. The company, known for its social activism, said such sales were “inconsistent with our values”.
The statement was one of the harshest rebukes by a high-profile corporation against Israel’s settlement policies in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which it has controlled for more than half a century after it captured them in the 1967 Middle East War.
With broad international support, the Palestinians claim both areas as parts of a future independent state. Israeli settlements, now home to around 700,000 Israelis, are widely viewed as illegal and an obstacle to peace.
Israel annexed East Jerusalem after the 1967 war and regards the entire city as its undivided capital, although the annexation is not internationally recognized. The West Bank is said to be a disputed area and its final status should be negotiated. However, the international community largely regards both areas as Occupied Territories.
Ben & Jerry’s said in its statement that it had informed its longtime Israeli partner that it would not renew its license agreement when it expires in late 2022.
While it will not serve Israeli-occupied territories, it said it will continue to offer ice cream in Israel “through a different arrangement”. A number of companies, notably beverage maker SodaStream, have closed factories in the occupied West Bank, but few have targeted Israeli consumers living there.
It remains unclear how Ben & Jerry’s plans do that. Israeli supermarket chains, a primary distribution channel for the sophisticatedly named ice creams, operate in the settlements, and under Israeli law, any person or company that boycotts the settlements can be sued.
At the global level, Israel does not distinguish between settlements and the rest of the country. When apartment rental company Airbnb announced in 2018 that it would no longer list properties in settlements in the West Bank, Israel harshly condemned the move as part of a broader Palestinian boycott movement against Israel.
Israel’s then Minister for Strategic Affairs, Gilad Erdan, encouraged Israelis harmed by the decision to sue Airbnb. A few months later, after sustained Israeli criticism and a US federal lawsuit from Israeli Americans, the company reversed course.
Erdan, now Israel’s ambassador to the United States, said Tuesday that he had sent a letter to the governors of 35 states that have passed laws against anti-Israel boycott activities.
“Action must be taken quickly and decisively to counteract such discriminatory and anti-Semitic acts,” he wrote. “We have to stand united and send an unequivocal message that this will not be tolerated.”
But even some supporters of Israel said the company was on solid ground.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the liberal pro-Israel group J-Street, said it was not anti-Semitism to distinguish between Israel and settlements in occupied territory.
“Rather than demonizing and attacking corporations and individuals for making decisions of principle,” he said, “these leaders would make a greater contribution to the fight against anti-Semitism by helping to bring a peaceful end to the unjust and harmful occupation.”
The dispute has made the Israeli ice cream market the latest front in Israel’s longstanding battle against the BDS movement, a Palestinian-led grassroots campaign promoting boycotts, divestments and sanctions against Israeli companies, cultural institutions and universities.
BDS organizers say they are protesting against Israeli oppression of the Palestinians in a campaign modeled on the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. His nonviolent message has resonated with audiences around the world, including many US colleges.
But Israel says the movement has a deeper agenda aimed at delegitimizing and destroying the country.
Omar Barghouti, a co-founder of BDS, said the movement had been pushing Ben & Jerry’s to withdraw from Israel for years. He called his decision “quite significant”.
“It shows that you cannot do business with an apartheid state without being complicit,” he said. “We expect more socially responsible companies to follow suit, perhaps less publicly.
Unilever, which acquired Ben & Jerry’s in 2000, appeared to distance itself from the ice cream machine on Tuesday. In a statement, Unilever stated that under the purchase agreement it recognized Ben & Jerry’s independence and the right to “make decisions about its social mission”.
“We remain fully committed to our presence in Israel, where we have invested in our people, brands and our business for several decades,” it said.
Eugene Kontorovich, a professor at George Mason University’s Scalia Law School, said that despite such assurances, the global corporation could be vulnerable to U.S. federal laws prohibiting anti-Israel boycott activities.
Kontorovich, who has consulted with lawmakers in some states that have passed the laws, said they treat anti-Israel boycotts as a form of discrimination. Failure to comply with these laws could result in both Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever being ineligible for government contracts or causing states to withdraw Unilever stock from large pension funds.
“You may see that mixing ice cream and anti-Israel politics is not the best idea,” he said.
The struggle takes place against the backdrop of a changing US attitude towards Israel. While Israel once enjoyed solid bipartisan support in the US, the country has become a controversial issue in recent years, with Republicans strongly supporting it and Democrats, especially young liberal voters, increasingly supporting the Palestinians.
Several factors have fueled this trend, including former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s close alliance with former President Donald Trump.
Michael Oren, Netanyahu’s ambassador to the US, said the trends were worrying for Israel.
While he said the Ben & Jerry decision did not pose an immediate threat to Israel’s resilient economy, he said the boycott movement could contribute to “a constant erosion of Israel’s legitimacy”.
“Our enemies know that they cannot destroy us with all these missiles,” he told reporters. “They can destroy us economically through sanctions and boycotts. And this is exactly where BDS poses a long-term threat.”