Orange CEO says company ‘is in Israel to stay’

Marcy Oster

JERUSALEM (JTA) — The chairman of the French telecom company Orange reversed his previous comments saying that the company “is in Israel to stay.”

Stephane Richard in an interview Saturday with the French news agency AFP denied that his company’s decision to end a brand-licensing agreement with the Israeli firm Partner was not a message that it was seeking to withdraw from Israel.

Richard said in the interview that he “sincerely” regretted the “controversy,” according to AFP.

The interview follows statements Richard made on Friday, in which he told the Israel news website Ynet that he did not mean to say that Orange was pulling out of Israel for political reasons. “We are friends of Israel, it has nothing do with Israel, we love Israel. My words were misunderstood, I spoke of a purely business issue,” he reportedly said.

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Richard said earlier in the week in Cairo that his company would end its Israeli presence if it were not contractually bound to Partner. He added: “I know that it is a sensitive issue here in Egypt, but not only in Egypt. We want to be one of the trustful partners of all Arab countries.” A day later the company announced that it would seek to cancel a new, recently signed a 10-year arrangement with Partner in Israel. Orange has not directly reached out to Partner since Richard’s Cairo remarks, the company has said.

Israeli Prime Minister was scheduled to talk on Sunday with French President Francois Hollande about the incident and the implications for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. France owns a 25 percent stake in Orange. Netanyahu also told his Foreign Ministry on Sunday to let Richard know that if he wants to set the record straight then he should travel to Israel to speak directly to Netanyahu, not meet with an Israeli diplomat in France, according to AFP.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Friday that France opposes boycotts, but would not intervene in the dispute.

Partner owner Haim Saban, an Egyptian-born Hollywood entertainment tycoon, on Saturday called the Orange claim that it was not trying to pull out of Israel for political reasons a “blatant lie” and told Israel’s Channel 2 in an interview Saturday night that he would fight back so hard that other companies considering a boycott of Israel will “think twice whether they want to take on Israel or not. Trust me this is just the beginning.”

Orange maintains two subsidiaries in Israel: Orange Business Services and Viaccess-Orca, a specialist in Internet television.