JERUSALEM – Unilever said on Wednesday it had sold the Israeli arm of ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s, nearly a year after Ben & Jerry’s sparked outrage in Israel by saying it would stop selling its products in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. .
Unilever, a British conglomerate that bought US company Ben & Jerry’s in 2000, said it Selling subsidiary’s suite in Israel for the ice cream maker’s longtime partner, Avi Zinger, who will continue to sell the product in the West Bank as well as inside Israel. Mr Zinger said in a phone interview that the ice cream would have a slightly different brand, with labels in Hebrew and Arabic rather than English.
Ben & Jerry’s independent board reserves the right to make decisions on social issues, while Unilever takes responsibility for financial and operational decisions, as part of the 2000 agreement. Wednesday’s decision by Unilever was the culmination of an 11-month lobbying campaign in which Unilever faced mounting demands from critics to overturn the decision. Its subsidiary – in addition to intense pressure from the Palestinians and their supporters to double this decision.
Supporters of Ben & Jerry’s decision last year saw it as a boost to a long-running international campaign against the occupation of the West Bank. But critics have accused the company of anti-Semitism for refusing to sell it to Israeli settlers. The move led several US pension funds to divest from Unilever and sparked a lawsuit from one of Unilever’s shareholders.
It was also the latest step in a decades-old global public relations issue: whether and how foreign companies and cultural figures should define and respond to Israel’s 55-year occupation of the West Bank.
Israel occupied 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 control of the area is legitimate, citing security concerns, the historical Jewish relationship to the land and the perceived lack of a reliable negotiating partner among the Palestinians.
But most countries consider the occupation and settlements illegal under international law, and human rights activists view the two-tiered legal system in the West Bank, which distinguishes between Palestinians and Israelis, as a form of apartheid.
To put pressure on Israel, pro-Palestinian activists have long been pushing companies, musicians and artists to use their influence to protest the occupation — sometimes by divesting in West Bank settlements, such as Ben & Jerry’s, or by boycotting Israel itself.
In response, Israel and its supporters have applied heavy pressure on their part, accusing those who boycott or divest themselves – even from the West Bank alone – of anti-Semitism. In 2019, Airbnb, the vacation rental company, reversed its decision to take down property listings in Israeli settlements in the West Bank, after four lawsuits were filed against it in the United States and Israel.
In its statement on Wednesday, Unilever said it “took an opportunity last year to hear views on this complex and sensitive matter, and believes this is Ben & Jerry’s best outcome in Israel.” Both sides declared victory after the announcement.
“This is a great 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’d say it’s a victory that definitely leaves a sweet aftertaste.”
However, supporters of Ben & Jerry’s original decision to forgo the sale of the company declared a conditional victory, as it meant the ice cream would be sold in the West Bank with different ownership and branding.
“Ben and Jerry’s will not deal with illegal settlements,” Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “What comes next may look and taste alike, but without Ben & Jerry’s recognized social justice values, it’s just a pint of ice cream.”
Both Unilever and Zinger declined to reveal the selling price. Ben & Jerry’s did not respond to a request for comment.