Orange chief apologizes to Israeli premier over exit remarks

CEO Stephane Richard stoked anger in Israel last week after announcing he wanted to sever business ties with Israel

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The chief executive of French telecom giant Orange SA apologized to Israel’s prime minister on Friday for his recent comments on pulling out of Israel, saying he opposes the boycott movement against the Jewish state and will continue to invest in it.

CEO Stephane Richard stoked anger in Israel last week after announcing he wanted to sever business ties with Israel as soon as possible, citing a desire to improve business relations in the Arab world. On Friday he told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he wanted to “clear up the confusion that was created after those statements.”

“I regret deeply this controversy and I want to make totally clear that Orange as a company has never supported and will never support any kind of boycott against Israel,” Richard said.

“We are doing business, we are doing communication, we are here to connect people, certainly not to participate in any kind of boycott. Israel is a fantastic place to be in the digital industry and of course our will is to strengthen and to keep on investing here,” he said.

Richard’s previous comments appeared to give a boost to the boycott campaign that seeks to isolate Israel. He said last week in Cairo that he would end his company’s relationship with Partner Communications Ltd. “tomorrow” if he could, but that he was bound by a contract for the time being.

Orange has long been a target of the anti-Israel campaign known as BDS - an acronym for boycott, divestment and sanctions - because its local partner maintains a series of transmission towers in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Israeli media have pointed out that Palestinians, including many senior Palestinian officials, use Orange services as well.

Israel has grown increasingly jittery as the BDS movement appears to be gaining steam, claiming pro-Palestinian activists are not out to promote peace, but instead aim to “delegitimize” the country’s very existence as a Jewish state.

“It’s no secret that the remarks you made last week were widely seen as an attack on Israel and so your visit here is an opportunity to set the record straight,” Netanyahu told Richard.

“We seek a genuine and secure peace with our Palestinian neighbors, but that can only be achieved through direct negotiations between the parties without preconditions,” Netanyahu said. “It will not be achieved through boycotts and through threats of boycotts.”

In Paris, an official in French President Francois Hollande’s office denied that it had pressured or called Richard, but said that it supported his visit to “clarify the misunderstandings.” The official spoke only on condition of anonymity in line with protocol.

The French Foreign Ministry has said that France opposes any boycott of Israel and that it was up to Richard to define the commercial strategy of his company.

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