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Explained: Why Unilever sold its Ben & Jerry’s ice cream business in Israel to avoid West Bank row

The deal comes a year after the US-based ice cream brand sparked controversy by announcing that it would stop marketing products in Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories as it was “inconsistent” with its values.

The company sold the business to its long-standing partner in Israel, Avi Zinger, for an undisclosed fee. (Twitter/@benandjerrys)

Consumer products giant Unilever Wednesday announced that it had sold its Ben & Jerry’s ice cream business in Israel, in a bid to defuse a growing row over the sale of its products in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

The company sold the business to its long-standing partner in Israel, Avi Zinger, for an undisclosed fee. Under the new arrangement, ice cream with the same flavours and similar artwork will be sold in the occupied West Bank as well as within Israel.

The deal comes a year after the US-based ice cream brand sparked controversy by announcing that it would stop marketing products in Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories as it was “inconsistent” with its values.

What led to Unilever’s decision?

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In July last year, the independent board of the ice cream manufacturer announced that it would not sell its products in Israel-occupied Palestinian territories. A meltdown ensued, with Israel demanding that the US take legal action against the Vermont-based company.

“The boycott of Israel is a new sort of terrorism, economic terrorism,” said Israel’s President Isaac Herzog. The country’s PM, Naftali Bennett, too, condemned the decision, saying that the company has now decided to rebrand as an “anti-Semitic ice cream” and called the step “morally wrong”.

But supporters of Ben & Jerry’s decision saw it as a major victory for a long-running international campaign against the occupation of the West Bank, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Following the controversy, Unilever launched an 11-month review of the business in Israel, which concluded with the conglomerate’s announcement this week.

What do we know about the Unilever-Avi Zinger deal?

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British conglomerate Unilever acquired Ben & Jerry’s in 2000. As part of the acquisition agreement, the ice cream maker’s independent board reserves the right to make decisions about social issues, while Unilever is responsible for financial and operational decisions.

After facing widespread calls for the Ben & Jerry’s boycott to be lifted, Unilever on Wednesday decided to overrule the subsidiary’s decision.

Under the new deal, Avi Zinger, the owner of Ben & Jerry’s current licensee for the region, American Quality Products (AQP), will be able to sell the ice cream across Israel. While the products will largely look the same, the new containers will feature the Hebrew and Arabic version of the brand names – not the English brand, Ben & Jerry’s, the Guardian reported.

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A Unilever spokesperson told the Guardian that the company will not be receiving any licensing income from the sale of the products.

“Unilever has 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. The review included extensive consultation over several months, including with the Israeli government,” a statement from Unilever read. “Unilever rejects completely and repudiates unequivocally any form of discrimination or intolerance. Anti-Semitism has no place in any society. We have never expressed any support for the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement and have no intention of changing that position.”

Why have there been calls to stop sales in the West Bank and East Jerusalem?

Israel captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem during the 1967 six-day war. Presently, the two territories are home to about 7 lakh Israeli settlers. Israel considers East Jerusalem as part of its capital, while the West Bank is considered a disputed territory. However, the wider international community sees both contested areas as occupied territory.

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Pro-Palestinian activists have been pushing international companies, influencers, musicians and artists to protest the occupation by pulling out investments in the West Bank settlements and by boycotting Israel itself. In response, Israel has accused companies that have chosen to boycott or divest of anti-Semitism.

How have people responded to Unilever’s decision?

Welcoming the decision, Lior Hayat, a spokesperson for the Israeli foreign ministry told The New York Times, “This is a huge victory for Israel.”

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“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,” he added.

However, the independent board of the ice cream brand said it does not agree with the deal its parent company had brokered. The company said that the agreement was “inconsistent with Ben & Jerry’s values for our ice cream to be sold in the Occupied Palestinian Territory,” BBC reported.

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First published on: 01-07-2022 at 08:00:30 am
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