Israel has warned consumer goods giant Unilever of “severe consequences” from a decision by subsidiary Ben & Jerry’s to stop selling ice cream in Israeli-occupied territories, and urged US states to invoke anti-boycott laws.
Monday’s announcement followed pro-Palestinian pressure on the Vermont-based company over its business in Israel and Jewish settlements in the West Bank, handled since 1987 through a licensee partner, Ben & Jerry’s Israel.
Ben & Jerry’s said it would not renew the licence when it expires at the end of next year. It said it would stay in Israel under a different arrangement, without sales in the West Bank, among areas where Palestinians seek statehood.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s office said in a statement that he had complained to Unilever CEO Alan Jope about the “glaring anti-Israel measure”.
“From Israel’s standpoint, this action has severe consequences, legal and otherwise, and it will move aggressively against any boycott measure targeting civilians,” Bennett told Jope in a phone conversation, according to the premier’s office.
Unilever did not immediately respond.
Many world powers deem Israel’s settlements illegal. Israel disputes this, citing historical and security links to the land, and has moved to penalise anti-settlement measures under law.
Avi Zinger, CEO of Ben & Jerry’s Israel, said he was unwilling to refuse to sell the ice cream to Israeli citizens in settlements and was legally prevented from doing so.
“So when they (Ben & Jerry’s) realised that there is no way that I will stop it, they decided not to renew my contract,” he told Reuters.
Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, said he had raised the Ben & Jerry’s decision in a letter to 35 US governors whose states legislated against boycotting Israel.
“Rapid and determined action must be taken to counter such discriminatory and antisemitic actions,” read the letter, tweeted by the envoy, which likened the case to Airbnb’s 2018 announcement that it would delist settlement rental properties.
Airbnb reversed that decision in 2019 following legal challenges in the US, but said it would donate profits from bookings in the settlements to humanitarian causes.
Palestinians welcomed the Ben & Jerry’s announcement. They want the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip for a future state. Israel deems all of Jerusalem its capital, a status not recognised internationally. Gaza is controlled by Hamas Islamists who refuse coexistence with Israel.
Orna Barbivai, Israel’s economy minister, posted a video of herself throwing a tub of Ben & Jerry’s into the trash. Ayman Odeh, an opposition lawmaker from Israel’s Arab minority, tweeted an image of him smiling as he dug into his own tub.
- Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller, Raissa Kasolowsky and Edmund Blair, of Reuters.