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Orange CEO Backtracks on Cutting Israel Ties


JERUSALEM, Israel -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Orange Chairman and CEO Stéphane Richard Friday morning to discuss his remarks on cutting ties with Israel.

"It's no secret that the remarks you made last week were widely seen as an attack on Israel and so your visit here is an opportunity to set the record straight," Netanyahu said at the start of their meeting.

"Israel is the one country in the Middle East that guarantees full civic [civil] rights. It's the one county in the Middle East where everyone is protected under the law equally," he continued.

"We seek a genuine and secure peace with our Palestinian neighbors, but that can only be achieved through direct negotiations between the parties without preconditions. It will not be achieved through boycotts and through threats of boycotts," Netanyahu concluded.

In response, Richard thanked the prime minister for the invitation to come and "clear up the confusion" created by his remarks to the press.

"I regret deeply this controversy and I want to make totally clear that Orange as a company has never supported and will never support any kind of boycott against Israel," he said.

"We are doing business; we are doing communication; we are here to connect people, certainly not to participate in any kind of boycott," he explained. "Israel is a fantastic place to be in the digital industry and of course our will is to strengthen and to keep on investing here."

It was a very different statement than Richard made in Cairo last week, when he told reporters he was ready to cut ties with Israel "tomorrow morning."

"I am ready to abandon this [ties with Israel] tomorrow morning but the point is that I want to secure the legal risk for the company. I want to terminate this, once again, but I don't want to expose Orange to a level of risk and of penalties that could be really sizable for the company," he said.

According to media reports, human rights organizations in France had been pressuring Richard to cut ties with Partner Communications Ltd. over its "activities" in Judea and Samaria, also known as the West Bank.

Late last month, five French NGOs and two unions advised the French mobile phone giant "to publicly communicate its willingness to disengagement and denounce human rights abuses committed by Partner," YNet reported.

Partner Communications CEO Haim Romano said the Israeli company was not a subsidiary of Orange nor was it owned by France Télécom S.A., which owns the Orange brand name. Romano said his company had been using the Orange name since 1998 when it was owned by Hutchison Whampoa, a Hong Kong company.

"Partner signed a trademark licensing contract with France Télécom to use the brand name, which was just recently renewed for 10 years," Romano told YNet, adding that he "completely rejects the comments."

Orange is one of Israel's three major cellphone providers.

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