Last Wednesday it was reported that the CEO of the French telecoms giant International Orange had announced in Cairo that he would like to terminate the franchise agreement his company has with the Israeli cell phone provider Partner as soon as possible, even though he admitted that there were serious legal and financial obstacles involved in doing so.
The precise background to this announcement is not absolutely clear, though it is certainly connected in one way or another with the threat of boycotts on Israel, purportedly against the background of Israel’s settlement policy in the West Bank, its non-commitment to the two-state solution and its alleged excesses during Operation vProtective Edge, which resulted in large numbers of civilian casualties, including children, in the Gaza Strip.
The excuse given by International Orange that its agreement with Partner is its only international agreement which leaves the operation of the franchise outside its direct control, and that Orange is no longer interested in such an agreement, sounds feeble given the fact that it recently extended its agreement with Partner for a further 10 years.
In fact, we do not know whether the immediate reason for the announcement was pressure from Egyptian factors, against the background of International Orange’s plans to enter the Egyptian market, or pressures from elsewhere (allegedly French human rights organizations).
Even though Partner is likely to gain financially from a decision by International Orange to break its agreement with it – the International Orange CEO admitted in his Cairo announcement that this could cost his company hundreds of millions of euros, and many Israelis are likely to decide to go over to using Partner’s services for patriotic reasons – the Israeli reaction was strong and immediate. This reaction included the intervention of the Israeli government with the French government (which holds 25 percent of the shares of International Orange), and the usual accusations of European anti-Semitism.
The official Israeli reaction resulted in French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius stating on Friday that, “Although it is for the president of the Orange group to determine the commercial strategy of the company, France is firmly opposed to a boycott of Israel.” Whether this will contribute to preventing International Orange from taking any concrete actions toward severing its ties with Partner is yet to be seen. However, even if it does, I am not sure that the Israeli reaction – whether one views it as firm or simply as hysterical – is wise in the long run.
What the reaction projects is panic, and given that there is no prospect in the foreseeable future of the threats of boycotts – whether economic or in the spheres of education, culture and sports – diminishing, such reactions are likely to encourage those who call for the boycotts to intensify their efforts.
The reaction of Partner owner billionaire Haim Saban, who together with the billionaire Sheldon Adelson is intent on convincing all the anti-Semites and potential boycotters of Israel that messing around with Israel and Israeli interests could be a costly matter, is also likely to boomerang – not because standing up to the boycott is not a worthy cause, but because the image of two Jewish billionaires and supporters of Israel planning revenge is reminiscent of anti-semitic canards.
This coalition is, however, interesting because the two gentlemen represent in their politics (Saban is a Democrat and Adelson a Republican) the two sides of the Israeli ideological divide. One side includes those who argue that the threat of boycotts has nothing whatsoever to do with Israel’s policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians and the territories, but rather with an inherent anti-Semitism and pro-Arab sentiment, or that Israel’s policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians and the territories are not negotiable because they stand at the core of the territorial basis of Zionism. The other side includes those who argue that the boycott threats are primarily (even if not exclusively) a function of Israeli policies, and that Zionism is first and foremost about maintaining a state with a solid Jewish majority, which is threatened by the prospects of the single-state solution, to which the Netanyahu government appears to be leading us at the moment.
Those who argue that it isn’t Israel’s policies which lead to threats of boycotts try to erase from Israel’s collective memory what happened in the aftermath of the Madrid Conference of October/November 1991, which dealt with peace in the Middle East, and in which Israel participated despite the misgivings of prime minister Yitzhak Shamir. What happened was that many states, including India and China, established diplomatic relations with Israel for the first time, and when to all effects and purposes the formal Arab boycott of Israel, with which Israel had contended since its establishment, vanished.
The question of whether Israel’s policies affect or do not affect its standing in the international arena is closely connected to the question of how Israel should balance ideology and realpolitik. Naturally, if one does not believe that Israel’s policies affect its international standing, then there is no problem to give ideology precedence over realpolitik. If one believes that remaining within the limits of realpolitik is a prerequisite for Israel’s continued existence, then when realpolitik clashes with ideology, then one must be willing to forgo ideological principles.
Thus, in 1948, Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, believed that despite the very difficult reality, through a judicious management of the cards in its hands Israel could come into existence and survive.
This was not an uncontested position, and there were many, even in the Zionist leadership, who feared that the risks were too great.
However, at the same time, Ben-Gurion was aware of the limits imposed by realpolitik, and he consequently rejected the recommendation of some of his generals in 1949 to conquer the territories held by the Arab Legion in the West Bank, arguing that Israel might be able to swallow these territories, but that it would be unable to digest them – mainly for demographic reasons. In 1956, following the successful conquest of the Sinai Peninsula by Israel, Ben-Gurion decided to withdraw from every inch of the land occupied, because international opposition to Israel remaining in the Sinai Peninsula (including that of both the US and the Soviet Union) was overwhelming, and realpolitik dictated submitting to it.
Where does our current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, stand with regard to this issue? Netanyahu undoubtedly understands that there is tension between ideology and realpolitik – between the desirable and the possible. However, the fact that his calculations of what is possible internationally appear to be based on the assumption that the next president of the United States will be a Republican, and that he seems to believe that rejecting the two-state solution in Hebrew during the election campaign, and supporting such a solution (under totally unrealistic conditions, one might add) in English after the elections will somehow help Israel contend with its critics abroad, are not reassuring indicators.
Within the coming months Israel will be confronted not only with additional occurrences such as that involving Orange International, but also with additional diplomatic initiatives by the Palestinians designed to corner Israel, and initiatives by the European Union, France and others to try to force Israel to change its policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians, and in the territories. The billions of Saban and Adelson cannot really make much of a difference, nor can hasbara, or “public diplomacy” (what exactly do the advocates of “better” hasbara wish to explain?).
It is going to be Netanyahu’s greatest test to prove that he is a Churchill, as he imagines himself to be. If he proves that he is a fraction of a Ben-Gurion – dayenu.
The writer is a political scientist and a retired Knesset employee.