For SodaStream chief, frustration with Netanyahu’s ‘politics of hate’ bubbles over

The carbonated drinks maker used to employ 500 Palestinians at its factory in a West Bank settlement. Relocated to the Negev, it now employs none. This has nothing to do with BDS, charges CEO Daniel Birnbaum, and plenty to do with the PM. (Not true, says the PMO)

The head of SodaStream has issued a bitter critique of Benjamin Netanyahu and his government, accusing the prime minister of cynically and deliberately nurturing the conflict with the Palestinians “in all its evil manifestations.”

In an interview with The Times of Israel, the carbonated drinks firm’s CEO Daniel Birnbaum charged Netanyahu was personally involved in the bureaucratic process that saw all of SodaStream’s Palestinian employees gradually barred in recent months from working at the company’s factory in the Negev.

He charged that the government knowingly perpetuates a false narrative according to which SodaStream was forced under pressure from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement to close its West Bank factory and fire the 500 Palestinians who worked under conditions equal to those of the 700 Israeli Jews and Arabs there. This false narrative, he said, is utilized by the Netanyahu government as ostensible proof that when Israelis try to build a better environment with and for the Palestinians, the Palestinian leadership and the BDS movement make it impossible.

As the government well knows, however, said Birnbaum, SodaStream relocated from the Mishor Adumim industrial park in the West Bank to Lehavim in the Negev in 2014 because it needed considerably more space, in a move it had begun planning long before and one that had nothing to do with BDS. It sought to retain 350 of its 500 Palestinian workers at the new Lehavim plant, but was granted permits for only 120. Subsequently, new conditions were imposed and that number was reduced to 74. And since February, said Birnbaum, those last 74 have also been barred from Israel, their permits retroactively canceled. While the new factory employs 500 Bedouin from nearby Rahat, he said, it is no longer permitted to provide work for a single one of its former Palestinian employees, some of whom had worked for SodaStream for six years, and many of whom were wonderful ambassadors for Israel.

Calling Netanyahu “the prime minister of conflict,” Birnbaum accused him of a direct role in dismantling what he called the “island of peace” that SodaStream had fostered between its Israeli and Palestinian workers. “Bibi should be coming here and convincing me to continue what I’ve been doing with the Palestinians because it gives hope to the next generation,” Birnbaum said. Instead, “the Prime Minister’s Office actually intervened to stop the employment of our Palestinians so that Bibi can then point a finger at the BDS.”

The Palestinians who used to work for SodaStream were “visual proof that Israel is not an apartheid state,” Birnbaum said. But the prime minister, he charged, is pursuing a different agenda. “Bibi is systematically spreading hate within Israel between Jews and Arabs and between Orthodox and secular. He’s breeding separatism between Israel and world Jewry on issues such as ‘Who is a Jew?’ and taking sides in American politics… With such a separatist track record, it’s no wonder that he won’t embrace a straightforward solution to lower the flames and build a bridge to coexistence. Apparently our 74 Palestinians represent a threat to his agenda.”

The Prime Minister’s Office tells a very different story. An official who asked not to be named was adamant that Birnbaum, in relocating his factory, had caved under pressure from the BDS movement. And the moment that SodaStream relocated to inside Israel, it was required to comply with Israeli labor laws. In contrast to factories over the Green Line, where there are no limits on how many Palestinians can be employed, within Israel, because of the Finance Ministry’s ongoing and successful efforts to bring down unemployment, priority is given to Israeli workers wherever possible. “SodaStream went from no quotas at Mishor Adumim, moved inside the Green Line, and was required to follow Israeli labor laws,” said the official. “So it had to lose its Palestinian workers.” Birnbaum, said the official, knew full well this would happen.

Nonetheless, when Birnbaum asked for help, saying he needed a grace period to make the transition, the prime minister came to his aid, said the official. It arranged for one extension for the Palestinian workers, and then another. Birnbaum “signed off” on a final extension and an “end of claims.” That elapsed. “The prime minister wanted to help make the transition more smooth. The lack of gratitude is appalling,” the official said. “The PM could have said we’re not helping him at all. Maybe we shouldn’t have helped him. To say it’s personal animus is despicable.”

Birnbaum — who stressed that he has no personal political ambitions, called himself a “pragmatic righty” and said he once voted for the Likud leader — also argued that Netanyahu could greatly advance the prospects for long-term tranquility in ties with the Palestinians if he adopted, rather than thwarted, SodaStream-style efforts to boost the number of security-screened Palestinians working in Israel. The main terror threat from Palestinians, as Israel’s security establishment has stressed, stems from those 40,000 Palestinians who are working in Israel without permits, he said. If Israel gave jobs instead to Palestinians who have security clearance, there would be no work for the illegals, and the terror threat would recede. “If someone uses a knife or any form of explosive, a Molotov cocktail or a bomb or a firearm,” Birnbaum noted, then the whole wider family “lose their work permits. That’s the power of this work permit. It puts the whole society in dir balak (“You better watch out”) mode. It’s the carrot and the stick. It works… When you allow Palestinians to work in Israel, you’re buying security in that way.”

David Horovitz

Times of Israel