The chief executive of Unilever on Thursday said the global consumer goods giant remains “fully committed” to doing business in Israel, distancing himself from this week’s announcement by the company’s Ben & Jerry’s ice cream brand to stop serving Israeli settlements in the occupied territories of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
But CEO Alan Jope gave no indication that Unilever would force Ben & Jerry’s to roll back its controversial decision.
Ben & Jerry’s announcement is one of the strongest steps by a well-known company against Israel’s settlements, which are widely seen by the international community as illegal. The Israeli government has condemned the decision, accusing the company of joining a Palestinian-led boycott campaign against Israel. It has urged 35 United States states with anti-boycott laws to punish Unilever.
In a conference call with investors, Jope said that Ben & Jerry’s, which has a long history of social activism, had made the decision on its own.
He noted that under Unilever’s purchase agreement with Ben & Jerry’s in 2000, the iconic ice cream company maintained broad independence over its social justice policies and that Unilever respected that arrangement.
“Obviously it’s a complex and sensitive matter that elicits very strong feelings,” he said. “If there is one message I want to underscore in this call, it’s that Unilever remains fully committed to our business in Israel.”
That includes a new 35-million-euro ($41m) razor factory, corporate offices and facilities that employ some 2,000 people, hundreds of millions of dollars of investment and support for “social programmes”, he said.
Jope said “it is not our intent” to regularly delve into such sensitive matters.
“It’s been a long-standing issue for Ben & Jerry’s,” he added. “We were aware of this decision by the brand and its independent board, but it’s certainly not our intention that every quarter will have one quite as fiery as this one.”
It remained unclear whether his comments would calm the uproar in Israel.
The country’s new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, said earlier this week that he had spoken to Jope about what he called a “clearly anti-Israel step”.
Bennett, a former leader of the West Bank settlement movement, said Thursday that Israel would “use the tools at its disposal — including legal — on this issue” and that those boycotting Israel “need to know that there will be a price to pay”.
In its announcement, Ben & Jerry’s said it would stop selling ice cream in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, saying such sales were “inconsistent with our values”.
The company’s factory is in southern Israel, not in a settlement, meaning that it is targeting consumers, as opposed to a production facility.
Palestinians claim both territories, captured by Israel in the 1967 war, as parts of a future independent state.
Israel annexed East Jerusalem after the 1967 war and considers the area part of its undivided capital. It says the West Bank is disputed territory whose fate should be resolved in peace talks.
But the international community widely sees both areas as occupied territory and considers the settlements, home to some 700,000 Israelis, as illegal under international law.
In its statement, Ben & Jerry’s sought to differentiate between Israel and occupied lands, saying it would continue to produce ice cream inside Israel through a “different arrangement”. But it gave no further details and said it would end its production agreement with its longtime Israeli licensee at the end of next year.
Separating Israel and its settlements will be difficult. Israeli supermarket chains, a main distribution channel for Ben & Jerry’s, operate in the settlements. Israeli law also prevents local companies from boycotting the settlements.
Israel does not differentiate between the settlements and the rest of its territory. When home-rental company Airbnb announced in 2018 that it would no longer list properties in West Bank settlements, Israel harshly condemned the move and eventually pressured the company into cancelling the decision.
Israel’s ambassador to the US and United Nations, Gilad Erdan, this week sent a letter to the governors of 35 US states urging them to punish Unilever under anti-boycott laws.
On Thursday, he joined Bennett in hosting a delegation of foreign diplomats. Erdan said he was enlisting the diplomats in the fight against what he called “anti-Israel discrimination” on the international stage.
The dispute has turned the Israeli ice cream market into the latest front in Israel’s long-running battle against the BDS movement, a Palestinian-led grassroots campaign that promotes boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israeli businesses, cultural institutions and universities.
BDS organisers say they are protesting what they call Israeli oppression of Palestinians in a campaign modelled on the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Its non-violent message has resonated with audiences around the world, including on many US college campuses.
— BDS movement (@BDSmovement) July 19, 2021
But Israel says the movement has a deeper agenda aimed at delegitimising and destroying the country. Some have expressed concern that Ben & Jerry’s, whose founders are both Jewish, could spur other companies to follow suit.
Some supporters of Israel, however, have said the decision should be a wake-up call over the half-century settlement policies in occupied lands.
“When a major ice cream company originally founded by two Jewish entrepreneurs decides not to sell its products in the occupied territories, that isn’t anti-Semitism,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the liberal US pro-Israel lobbying group J Street.
“The fight against anti-Semitism would be helped a great deal if the Israeli government and US Jewish leaders would stop using the term against those who draw a principled and rational distinction between commercial transactions in the state of Israel and those in the territory it occupies,” he said.