The Israeli prime minister on Tuesday vowed to “act aggressively” against Ben & Jerry’s decision to stop selling its ice cream in the territories occupied by Israel, while the country’s ambassador to the United States urged dozens of state governors to punish the company under anti-boycott laws.
The strong backlash reflected concerns in Israel that the ice cream maker’s move could lead other companies to follow suit. It also seemed to set the stage for a long legal and public relations battle.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s office said he spoke with Alan Jope, managing director of parent company Ben & Jerry’s, the food conglomerate Unilever, and expressed concern over what he called a “clearly anti-Israel measure”. He said the move would have “serious consequences, legal and otherwise,” and that Israel “would act aggressively against all boycott actions directed against its citizens.”
In Washington, DC, State Department spokesman Ned Price declined to comment directly on the company’s decision. But he said the United States rejected the boycott movement against Israel, saying it was “unfairly singling out” the country.
In Monday’s announcement, Ben & Jerry’s said it would stop selling ice cream in the occupied West Bank and challenged East Jerusalem. The company, long known for its social activism, said such sales were “inconsistent with our values.”
The statement was one of the harshest reprimands by a high-profile American brand of Israel’s settlement policies in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which it has controlled for more than half a century after capturing them during of the Middle East War in 1967.
Wide international support
The Palestinians, with broad international support, claim the two areas as part of a future independent state. Israeli settlements, which are now home to some 700,000 Israelis, are widely viewed as illegal and obstacles 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. He says the West Bank is disputed territory and its final status should be resolved in negotiations. Much of the international community, however, regards both areas as occupied territories.
In its statement, Ben & Jerry’s said it has informed its long-time Israeli partner that it will not renew its license agreement when it expires at the end of 2022.
While noting that it would not serve areas occupied by Israel, it said it would continue to provide ice cream to Israel “through a different arrangement.” A number of companies, including the beverage company SodaStream, have closed factories in the occupied West Bank, but few have targeted the Israeli consumers who live there.
It’s still unclear how Ben & Jerry’s plans to do it, as Israeli supermarket chains, a primary distribution channel for cleverly-named flavored ice cream, also operate in the settlements. Under Israeli law, people or companies boycotting settlements can be prosecuted.
2018 Airbnb Boycott of the West Bank
On the world stage, Israel does not differentiate between the settlements and the rest of the country. When home rental company Airbnb announced in 2018 that it would no longer list properties in West Bank settlements, Israel harshly condemned the move as part of a wider Palestinian-led boycott movement against Israel.
Israeli Minister of Strategic Affairs at the time, Gilad Erdan, urged Israelis aggrieved by the decision to sue Airbnb. Several months later, after continued Israeli criticism and a US federal lawsuit filed by American Israelis, the company backed down.
Erdan, now Israel’s ambassador to the United States, said on Tuesday he had sent a letter to the governors of 35 states that have passed laws against anti-Israel boycott activity.
“Swift and determined action must be taken to counter such discriminatory and anti-Semitic actions,” he wrote. “We must stand united and send an unequivocal message that this will not be tolerated.”
But even some supporters of Israel said the business was on solid footing.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, chairman of the pro-Israel liberal group J-Street, said it was not anti-Semitism to differentiate between Israel and settlements built in occupied territory.
“Instead of demonizing and attacking companies and individuals for making principled decisions,” 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 “.
Last front in a long-standing battle
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 boycott, divestment and sanctions, or BDS, against companies. , Israeli 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 non-violent message resonated with audiences around the world, including on many US college campuses.
But Israel says the movement has a deeper agenda to delegitimize and destroy the country.
Omar Barghouti, co-founder of BDS, said the movement has been urging Ben & Jerry’s to withdraw from Israel for years. He called his decision “very important”.
“It shows that you cannot do business with an apartheid state without being an accomplice,” he said. “We expect more socially responsible companies to follow suit, perhaps less publicly.”
Unilever, which bought Ben & Jerry’s in 2000, appeared on Tuesday to distance itself from the glacier. In a statement, Unilever noted that as part of the purchase contract, it recognized the independence and right of Ben & Jerry “to make decisions about its social mission.”
“We remain fully committed to our presence in Israel, where we have been investing in our people, our brands and our business for several decades,” he said.
Eugene Kontorovich, a professor at Scalia Law School at George Mason University, said that despite such assurances, global society could be vulnerable to US state laws prohibiting anti-Israel boycott activity.
Kontorovich, who consulted with lawmakers in some states that passed the laws, said they treated anti-Israel boycotts as a form of discrimination. Violating those laws, he said, could make Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever ineligible for state contracts or cause states to abandon Unilever shares in large pension funds.
“They can see that mixing ice cream with anti-Israel politics might not be the best idea,” he said.
American support melts
The battle comes against the backdrop of a shift in US attitude towards Israel. Where Israel once enjoyed strong bipartisan support in the United States, the country has become a subject of division in recent years, with Republicans strongly supporting it and Democrats, especially younger liberal voters, increasingly supporting the United States. Palestinians.
Several factors have fueled this trend, including former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s close alliance with former President Donald Trump.
Michael Oren, who served as Netanyahu’s ambassador to the United States, said the trends were worrying for Israel.
While he said Ben & Jerry’s decision posed no immediate threat to Israel’s robust 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 where BDS poses a long-term threat.”