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Scarlet soda

Pop goes the fizz as Scarlett Johansson finds herself in the midst of a brewing row over Israeli firms in West Bank.

Jerusalem |
February 4, 2014 12:09:43 am

ISABEL KERSHNER

“Start with plain water and bubbles. Mix in the perfect flavour,” Scarlett Johansson suggests in the ad that is part of her new endorsement deal with SodaStream, the Israeli company that manufactures home carbonation systems.

But instead of a fizzy drink, the Hollywood actress has stirred up an international political storm because SodaStream’s largest factory is in a Jewish settlement in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, an area the Palestinians envision as part of a future independent state.

Her deal with SodaStream has led to a parting of ways between Johansson and Oxfam International, the confederation of aid groups. After eight years as its global ambassador, she said she was stepping down.

“Oxfam believes that businesses such as SodaStream that operate in settlements further the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities,” Oxfam said, adding that it was “opposed to all trade from Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law”.

The factory is in Mishor Adumim, an industrial zone attached to the large, urban settlement of Maale Adumim, east of Jerusalem. Israel views the territory that it captured from Jordan in the 1967 war as disputed and says it intends to keep Maale Adumim under any peace deal with the Palestinians.

The dispute over the ad has pitted pro-Palestinian activists against people and groups who support Israel unreservedly. Accusations of Israeli exploitation of Palestinian resources have been met with arguments that SodaStream encourages coexistence by providing employment to hundreds of West Bank Palestinians alongside Israeli Jews and Arab citizens of Israel.

“Just like the few artists who played Sun City during South African apartheid, Johansson will be remembered for having stood on the wrong side of history,” Rafeef Ziadah, a spokeswoman for the Palestinian BDS National Committee, said in a statement. The committee is a coalition of Palestinian organisations that advocate boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel.

In contrast, Robert Singer, the chief executive of the World Jewish Congress, that represents Jewish communities globally, said in a statement, “We applaud Miss Johansson for her forthright defence of economic cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians and for standing up to the international bullies.”

The fuss comes to the fore just as concern is growing in Israel about a potential increase in foreign boycotts of its companies if current Israeli-Palestinian peace talks fail.

Some European supermarket chains are already shunning agricultural produce from the settlements. PGGM, a large Dutch pension fund management company, recently decided to withdraw all its investments from Israel’s five largest banks because they maintain branches in West Bank settlements or are involved in financing settlement construction.

Yair Lapid, Israel’s Finance Minister, warned last week, “If negotiations with Palestinians get stuck or break down and we enter a reality of a European boycott, Israel’s economy will retreat… every resident of Israel will get hit straight in the pocket.”

Last month, members of the American Studies Association, an organisation of professors, voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions, giving a small but symbolic victory to the BDS movement in the US.

But the dispute over SodaStream has taken the boycott debate way beyond its relatively limited audiences, and it is likely to simmer on.

SodaStream announced its collaboration with Johansson on January 12, calling her its “first-ever global brand ambassador”.

Johansson released a statement in which she said she remained “a supporter of economic cooperation and social interaction between a democratic Israel and Palestine”. SodaStream, she continued, “is a company that is committed to building a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine, supporting neighbours working alongside each other, receiving equal pay, equal benefits and equal rights”.

Palestinians who have been campaigning for rights to settle in the area around Maale Adumim do not see it that way. Grass-roots activists known as the Bab al Shams Village Council, in coalition with the Jahalin Association, representing the Bedouin tribe that has been encamped in the area for decades, said in a statement, “For Palestinians to enjoy genuine and lasting economic prosperity, they require freedom from Israeli domination.”

Daniel Birnbaum, the chief executive of SodaStream, said in an interview that while he would not have chosen Mishor Adumim as the site for a factory, it was by now a reality, and that out of loyalty to the roughly 500 Palestinians employed there, he would not bow to political pressure to close the factory. “I could leave there tomorrow,” he said. “For me it would be easier, but what about the employees?

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