Orange boss invited to Israel over 'boycott' row

Jerusalem (AFP) - Israel has invited the head of France's Orange group to visit and explain his plan to review ties with a local telecoms firm that has stirred a boycott row, a government official said Sunday.

The government's invitation was the latest stage in the row which erupted Wednesday when Stephane Richard, chief executive of the telecoms giant, said while in Cairo that his firm sought to withdraw its brand from Israel.

Israel reacted furiously, accusing him of bowing to a Palestinian-led boycott campaign.

Richard quickly tried to limit the damage, insisting there was no political motivation and telling AFP at the weekend that he "sincerely regrets" the furore.

His remarks were dismissed by Partner, Israel's second largest mobile operator which has a licence to use the Orange brand.

Denouncing his remarks as a "smokescreen," the firm on Saturday demanded Richard explain himself in person.

Richard was understood to be seeking a meeting with Yossi Gal, Israel's ambassador to France, but the envoy had been instructed to decline, an Israeli government official told AFP.

"The ambassador in Paris has been instructed not to have a meeting there in Paris and to tell the CEO that he would be a welcome visitor in Israel," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

It was not immediately clear whether the Orange boss had accepted the invitation, for which no timeframe was given.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Richard's comments had been inconsistent.

"His subsequent words of admiration for Israel clearly don't square with the unequivocally hostile remarks he made in Cairo," Netanyahu's office quoted him as saying in a written message to a New York conference organised by the Jerusalem Post newspaper.

- In Israel 'to stay' -

Richard's remarks in Cairo, in which he said his firm's intention was "to withdraw (the) Orange brand from Israel," touched a raw nerve in the Jewish state which is becoming increasingly jittery about its image abroad.

His comments came just four weeks after the publication of a report accusing Orange of indirectly supporting settlement activity through its relationship with Partner Communications.

Compiled by five mainly French NGOs and two trade unions, the report accuses Partner of building on confiscated Palestinian land and urges Orange to cut business ties and publicly declare its desire to avoid contributing to the economic viability of the settlements.

The international community regards all Israeli construction on Palestinian land seized during the 1967 Six-Day War as illegal.

In a statement to AFP, Richard on Saturday reiterated that the move was solely motivated by "brand strategy".

"Orange does not support any form of boycott, in Israel or anywhere else in the world," he told AFP in an email, insisting that the Orange Group was "in Israel to stay."

Aside from its brand licensing agreement with Partner, the French firm operates two subsidiaries in Israel: Orange Business Services and Internet TV specialist Viaccess-Orca.

Paris has also sought to calm the row, with Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius insisting France was "firmly opposed to a boycott of Israel."

His remarks came after Netanyahu demanded the French government "publicly renounce the miserable remarks and the miserable action of a company that is under its partial ownership."

- Israeli counteroffensive -

The row follows a number of high-profile successes by a grassroots Palestinian boycott campaign known as the BDS movement.

At the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, Netanyahu said Israel was preparing an "offensive" to defend itself in the face of "lies, empty accusations and boycotts" all of which he said sought to undermine Israel's right to exist.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, a senior far-right member of Netanyahu's coalition government, warned that boycotting Israel was "a double-edged sword".

"If you are thinking of boycotting Israel, keep in mind that there are tens of millions of Israel supporters around the world, Jews and non-Jews with buying power and boycott power," he told a security conference in the coastal city of Herzliya.

"Whoever boycotts Israel, will be boycotted."

Last week, Britain's National Union of Students voted to affiliate itself with the BDS movement.

And on May 29, Israel narrowly avoided expulsion from FIFA after the Palestinians withdrew a resolution calling on world football's governing body to ban their Israeli counterparts.

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