SodaStream CEO: Netanyahu loves playing the victim

Daniel Birnbaum (Photo: Eyal Yitzhar)

Daniel Birnbaum tells “Globes” the company was not forced to move its West Bank plant to the Negev because of BDS pressure.

Daniel Birnbaum, CEO of SodaStream International Ltd. (Nasdaq: SODA), ought to be the poster-child of an Israeli conference against BDS. He is the face of a successful Israeli company that the BDS movement loves to hate; he manages a company that according to the accepted Israeli narrative is one of the biggest victims of the boycott, divestment, and sanction movement; a person to launch the rallying cry for the Israeli government against the BDS inciters.

But Birnbaum, one of the main participants in the major anti-BDS summit held Tuesday by Israel's Embassy to the United Nations, does not see himself or SodaStream as the victim of the Palestinian propaganda machine. In unexpected fashion, he actually thanks the BDS movement for Sodastream’s success. More unexpectedly, he is angry with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his tendency to play the victim in the face of BDS propaganda, and because of the defeats suffered as a result of this victimhood.

One might even say Birnbaum was a reluctant guest at the summit. As a “good Zionist” - by his definition - he answered the invitation to the event and did not expose the attendees to his harsh criticism of Netanyahu and his BDS policies. He made do with criticism of the lack of coordination in the fight against the movement.

But speaking to “Globes” at the end of the summit, he embarked on a merciless critique of the prime minister, who has turned BDS into one of his pet projects.

“The Netanyahu administration loves being the victim,” says Birnnaum. “My feeling is that the current Israeli government cultivates the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in all its forms and it grasps onto the BDS movement because perpetuating the conflict and the boycott movement strengthens its hold on power.

“Contrary to what people think and the statements from government ministers like Gilad Erdan, SodaStream was not forced to leave its factory in Mishor Adumim and relocate to the Negev because of BDS propaganda. SodaStream has never been a victim of BDS. We moved because of strong growth. It was purely a business decision. We do not need to provide BDS with an undeserved victory.

“SodaStream is a rare symbol of coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians. For years we employed at our Mishor Adumim factory 500 Palestinians who worked alongside 500 Jews and 200 Arab Israelis. At first, relations were strained, but gradually the atmosphere improved. There were Palestinians who were promoted up to management and it did not cause any trouble. The Palestinian employees were happy. We created a new reality in the Middle East.”

Birnbaum says when time came to move to the Negev, he asked for permits for his hundreds of Palestinian employees to allow them to work within the Green Line but the government objected and continually placed new obstacles in the way.

“I blame the Israeli government for scuppering this initiative, which it did in order to place the blame on the BDS movement,” says Birnbaum, “The government alienated the people who could have been ambassadors of peace, the people who were loyal to us, and that is how it perpetuates the conflict.”

Birnbaum further argues that the Israeli government’s approach to the conflict plays into the hands of the BDS movement. “We love to be miserable. We love to play the victim card. When Israel emphasizes its weakness, when it cries that the BDS movement is hurting it, it hands another victory to the terrorists. When Israel claims SodaStream was 'forced' to leave Mishor Adumim because of BDS pressure, it presents a trophy to the terrorists We must not score achievements to them.”

Birnbaum also wants to thank Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti for calling for a boycott of SodaStream. The company’s products are sold in a thousands of stores in the US. When a specific business is tempted to remove Israeli projects from its shelves because of Palestinian propaganda, SodaStream invites its representative to visit its factory in Israel and see with their own eyes the peaceful coexistence it represents.

“Usually, our products are returned to the shelves,” says Birnbaum. “You want to boycott SodaStream? Try it, and we’ll see who wins. The point is simple: the government should be offering hope, not promoting despair.”

Birnbaum believes the best way to fight BDS is to centralize all efforts under one ministry - instead of splitting them across four ministries.

The SodaStream CEO defines himself as a “right-wing pragmatist.” He does not see the Israeli presence in the West Bank as occupation. These are the historic lands of the Jewish people, in his opinion; the Holy Temple existed before Islam. But at the same time, Israel wants - or should want - peace and “I am for a Palestinian state, for two states for two peoples. Not simply a toothless Palestinian state, but an armed Palestinian state that could defend itself from Hamas.” He strenuously warns against any Hamas control over the West Bank.

Birnbaum, for his part, is under no illusion about the BDS movement. He knows exactly who he is dealing with. “We have always been an attractive target for BDS attacks,” he says. “When we announced the relocation from Mishor Adumim to the Negev, the BDS movement immediately released a statement: SodaStream left occupied Palestinian lands and moved to occupied Bedouin lands. It showed the only aim of the movement is the dissolution of Israel.”

Yet Birnbaum is still convinced the only way out of this intractable conflict is an Israeli effort to employ more and more Palestinians within the Green Line. “Not all Palestinians are armed with knives and prowling the streets seeking Jewish victims,” he says. “Many of them want to be doctors and engineers. The more Palestinians we employ, the fewer incentives there will be for armed resistance. People will have something to lose. It should be perceived to be in the national interest.”

Birnbaum is still seeking permits for 74 Palestinian employees to come work in the SodaStream facility in the Negev. “I deserve an answer from the government to this simple request, considering all my work against BDS,” he claims. “I believe Netanyahu is to blame for blocking the permits. This government is despicable.”

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on June 2, 2016

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2016

Daniel Birnbaum (Photo: Eyal Yitzhar)
Daniel Birnbaum (Photo: Eyal Yitzhar)
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