Unilever is “fully committed” to its business in Israel, chief executive Alan Jope said today (22 July), as the company deals with the fall-out from Ben & Jerry’s planned exit from Israel-controlled land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem claimed by Palestine.

The boycott by US ice-cream maker Ben & Jerry’s, owned by Unilever since 2000 but a subsidiary that regularly takes public stances on social and political issues, has sparked anger in Israel.

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On Tuesday, Jope spoke to Naftali Bennett about the situation and, after the call, the Israel Prime Minister’s office issued a statement that said Ben & Jerry’s move was “a clearly anti-Israel step”.

The statement added Bennett “emphasised that from the perspective of the State of Israel, this is an action that has severe consequences, including legal, and it will take strong action against any boycott directed against its citizens”.

Unilever has refused to comment on the details of the call. Today, the Knorr and Hellmann’s owner published its first-half financial results and was asked about the situation on a call with equity analysts to discuss the numbers.

“Look, this was a decision that was taken by Ben and Jerry’s and its independent board in line with an acquisition agreement that we signed 20 years ago. We’ve always recognised the importance of that agreement. Obviously, it’s a complex and sensitive matter that elicits very strong feelings. I think if there’s one message I want to underscore in this call, it’s that Unilever remains fully committed to our business in Israel,” Jope said.

“We have four factories, including a recent EUR35m investment in a new razor factory for [subsidiary] Dollar Shave Club. We’ve got 2,000 employees in our head office and distribution centres, and in the factories. We’ve put a ILS1bn (US$305.6m) of investment into the country in the last 10 years. That’s just the capital investment. We’re very active in the start-up community and with social programmes in Israel.”

The Unilever boss added: “I can assure you it is not our intent to regularly visit matters of this level of sensitivity. It’s been a long-standing issue for Ben and Jerry’s, and we were aware of this decision by the brand and its independent board. But [it’s] certainly not our intention that every quarter will have one quite as fiery as this one.”

Ben & Jerry’s decision to stop selling its products in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem also appears to have caused a row internally. On Tuesday, the company’s independent board criticised statements from its parent company and Ben & Jerry’s itself, which said the ice-cream business would continue to sell its products in the rest of Israel.

In an interview with US broadcaster NBC News, the ice-cream company’s chairperson, Anuradha Mittal, said the line in the statement about it staying in Israel wasn’t agreed on and Unilever had no authority to make such a promise.

Israel’s ambassador to the US, Gilad Erdan, has sent letters to the governors of 35 US states that have laws against boycotting Israel, asking them to place sanctions on Ben and Jerry’s in accordance with their own legislation.

The Times of Israel newspaper reported Erdan wrote in the letter the “boycott of hundreds of thousands of citizens living in Judea and Samaria” is the “de facto adoption of anti-semitic practices and advancement of the de-legitimisation of the Jewish state and dehumanisation of the Jewish people.” He was using the biblical terms for the occupied territories.

Ben & Jerry’s said its action would take effect at the end of 2022, when its contract with the current Israeli manufacturer and distributor expires.

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