Unilever Sells Ben & Jerry’s Business in Israel, Defusing Dispute

Source: www.nytimes.com : 2022-06-29 21:06:03 : Patrick Kingsley

JERUSALEM — Unilever said on Wednesday that it had sold the Israeli arm of the ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s, nearly a year after Ben & Jerry’s set off a fury in Israel by saying it would stop selling its products in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Unilever, a British conglomerate that bought the American company Ben & Jerry’s in 2000, said it was selling its subsidiary’s wing in Israel to the ice cream maker’s longstanding partner there, Avi Zinger, who would continue to sell the product in the West Bank as well as within Israel. The ice cream will have slightly different branding, with Hebrew and Arabic labels rather than English, Mr. Zinger said in a phone interview.

Ben & Jerry’s independent board reserves the right to make decisions about social issues, while Unilever is responsible for financial and operational decisions, as part of the 2000 agreement. Unilever’s decision on Wednesday was a culmination of an 11-month pressure campaign in which Unilever faced growing demands from critics to overrule its subsidiary’s decision — as well as intense pressure from Palestinians and their supporters to double down.

Supporters of Ben & Jerry’s decision last year saw it as a boost for a long-running international campaign against the West Bank occupation. But critics accused the company of antisemitism for refusing to sell to Israeli settlers. The move led several American pension funds to divest from Unilever and prompted a lawsuit from one of Unilever’s shareholders.

It was also the latest move in a global, decades-long public relations issue: whether and how foreign businesses and cultural figures should define and respond to Israel’s 55-year occupation of the West Bank.

Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in 1967 and has since allowed hundreds of thousands of Israelis to live in hundreds of new Jewish settlements there. Israel says its hold on the territory is legitimate, citing security concerns, historical Jewish connection to the land and the perceived lack of a credible negotiating partner among Palestinians.

But most countries consider the occupation and the settlements illegal under international law, and rights campaigners argue that the West Bank’s two-tier legal system, which differentiates between Palestinians and Israelis, constitutes a form of apartheid.

To pressure Israel, pro-Palestinian activists have long pushed companies, musicians and artists to use their influence to protest the occupation — sometimes by divesting from business in West Bank settlements, like Ben & Jerry’s, or by boycotting Israel itself.

In response, Israel and its supporters have exerted heavy pressure of their own, accusing those that boycott or divest — even from the West Bank alone — of antisemitism. In 2019, Airbnb, the vacation rental company, reversed its decision to remove property listings in the Israeli settlements of the West Bank, after four lawsuits were filed against it in the United States and Israel.

In its statement on Wednesday, Unilever said it “used the opportunity of the past year to listen to perspectives on this complex and sensitive matter and believes this is the best outcome for Ben & Jerry’s in Israel.” Both sides declared victory after the announcement.

“This is a huge victory for Israel,” said Lior Hayat, a spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry. “It also sends a very clear message that there is no room for hate speech or discrimination against Israel. And, if I may, I’ll say that it’s a victory that definitely leaves a sweet taste.”

Supporters of Ben & Jerry’s original decision to divest, however, declared the company’s sale as a qualified victory, since it meant that the ice cream would be sold in the West Bank under a different ownership and branding.

“Ben & Jerry’s won’t be doing business in illegal settlements,” Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “What comes next may look and taste similar, but, without Ben & Jerry’s recognized social justice values, it’s just a pint of ice cream.”

Both Unilever and Mr. Zinger declined to disclose the price of the sale. Ben & Jerry’s did not respond to a request for comment.

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