Israel moves to counter Ben & Jerry's amid wider fears

Ben & Jerry's  credit: Shutterstock

The ice cream company's boycott is a signal to the Israeli government of growing pressure by anti-Israeli forces on the US administration.

The announcement by ice cream company Ben & Jerry's that it would halt sales of its products in the "Occupied Palestinian Territories" did not describe the company's full plan. Ben & Jerry's intended to boycott Israel entirely, and not to renew its agreement with the Israeli franchisee, but the management of Unilever, which owns Ben & Jerry's, is for the time blocking that intention.

The issue, naturally, swiftly became a diplomatic one. Israel opened up a counter campaign, including a legal battle with the aid of states that have passed laws against activity of the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movement, and there are 35 of those. Minister of Foreign Affairs Yair Lapid published a sharply worded statement making the Israeli government's line of action clear: "Ben & Jerry's decision is a shameful surrender to anti-Semitism, to BDS… more than 30 states in the US have laws against surrender to BDS passed in recent years. I plan to go one by one and demand that they should invoke these laws against Ben & Jerry's."

Israel's ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan appealed to the governors of the 35 states with legislation outlawing boycotts of Israel, recalling the successful overturning of a boycott of the West Bank announced by Airbnb in November 2018, with the aid of the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, who forbad employees of the Florida administration to use Airbnb's services on work trips. Other state governors joined the move, including threats to withdraw investment, and Airbnb backtracked.

In the current instance, Ben & Jerry's intended, as mentioned, to boycott the whole of Israel by not renewing its franchise agreement in December 2022. This emerges from statements by the chairperson of Ben & Jerry's board of directors, Anuradha Mittal, who was furious at Unilever's announcement that it would continue to supply the ice cream in Israel by other means, after the contract expired.

Talking to the NBC network, Mittal said that parent company Unilever had acted in contravention of the independence clause in the agreement signed by the company's founders, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, with the international food giant in 2000. Mittal and the board of directors claim that the clause covers decisions relating to the company's values, and was the grounds for halting sales of its products to Russia, Morocco, and Hong Kong.

In practice, state legislation in the US mainly works against foreign companies. Thus, for example, the states of New Jersey and Colorado ceased to do business with Danske Bank of Denmark when it stopped investing in Israeli companies with connections or branches in Judea and Samaria.

Federal legislation does refer to boycotts in the context of law on international trade, which includes bans and restrictions to be imposed on business enterprises that boycott business in Israel or in territories over which there is Israeli sovereignty, which excludes Judea and Samaria. The admission by Ben & Jerry's that the intention is to halt sales in all of Israel could be caught by this legislation.

Federal pressure will add to other pressure on Ben & Jerry's. Its move has led to calls for a boycott on the company within the US, and supermarket chains with Jewish owners have announced that they will stop selling the Vermont ice cream company's products.

Ben & Jerry's boycott comes at the same time as a survey carried out recently among Jews in the US, the results of which are not pleasant for Israel. According to the survey, almost a quarter of US Jews think that Israel is an apartheid state, 22% agreed with the statement that Israel is carrying out continuing genocide against the Palestinians, and 9% believe that Israel has no right to exist at all as a sovereign country. Among young people the results are even worse.

Ben & Jerry's co-founder Ben Cohen is known as an enthusiastic supporter of and contributor to left-wing US politician Bernie Sanders, and he does not spare criticism of Israeli policies. The current board of directors is in the image of the founders, and so its decision to boycott Judea and Samaria, and Israel as a whole, is no surprise.

The sharp reactions on the part of the Israeli government betray the fear of the consequences of the boycott. Ben & Jerry's announcement has substantial symbolic significance. It lends legitimacy to concrete steps by the anti-Israel left in the US, which has considerable influence in the Democratic administration. The pressure being brought to bear by activist members of Congress such as Rashida Harbi Tlaib, Ilhan Abdullahi Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the White House and Congress to end US military aid and arms sales to Israel is growing and gathering supporters with every new Israeli operation in the Gaza Strip.

At this stage it looks as though Israel is focusing on a direct campaign against Ben & Jerry's, probably so as to avoid a furor that will put the matter in the diplomatic sphere. The approach of Naftali Bennett's government towards Washington is the opposite of that of Benjamin Netanyahu, and is designed to avoid possible confrontations with the Democratic Party, within which a struggle is being waged over Israel. Bennett released a statement after he talked to Unilever CEO Alan Jope saying that he viewed "with utmost gravity the decision by Ben & Jerry's to boycott Israel" and that "this is a subsidiary of Unilever, which has taken a clearly anti-Israel step."

"Prime Minister Bennett emphasized that from the perspective of the State of Israel, this is an action that has severe consequences, including legal, and it will take strong action against any boycott directed against its citizens," the statement said. On the other hand, Bennett's broad coalition is not of one mind on the matter. Meretz blames Israeli settlement in Judea and Samaria for the blow to Israel. MK Mossi Raz told "Globes": "Israel's citizens are again being harmed by the settlements, which are illegal and immoral." The heads of the party, ministers Nitzan Horowitz, Tamar Zandberg, and Issawi Frej have maintained silence. The Labor Party too has preferred to remain silent.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on July 20, 2021

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2021

Ben & Jerry's  credit: Shutterstock
Ben & Jerry's credit: Shutterstock
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