A movement to boycott Israel for its activities in the West Bank and Gaza is growing in popularity, and Israel's government is vowing to fight back.
The boycott movement, called BDS, which stands for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, opposes what it says is an Israeli system of discrimination against Palestinians. BDS has activists working in many countries, and the movement has tens of thousands of followers on social media.
Co-founder Omar Barghouti said BDS is growing quickly -- at least in part because of the formation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing government.
French exec's remarks spark controversy
The BDS movement has made front-page headlines in Israel, especially after Stéphane Richard, CEO of Orange, a French telecommunications company, said last week in Cairo that he would cut ties with the company's Israeli partner "tomorrow" if he could.
Orange has been a target of the BDS movement for its business in the West Bank, but Richard insisted his comments were not related to the BDS movement. Instead, he said his comments related to Orange's business in Israel. Israeli company Partner Communications uses the Orange brand name in Israel.
Orange issued a statement following Richard's remarks, saying, "In line with its brand development strategy, Orange does not wish to maintain the presence of the brand in countries in which it is not, or is no longer, an operator. In this context, and while strictly adhering to existing agreements, the Group ultimately wishes to end this brand license agreement."
Netanyahu and other Israeli politicians blasted Richard's comments, calling for the French government, which owns part of Orange, to condemn the statements. "I call on the French government to publicly repudiate the miserable statement and miserable action by a company that is under its partial ownership," Netanyahu said.
Richard apologized for his remarks and said he was misunderstood. He is expected in Israel this week to clarify his comments, according to the Prime Minister's office.
Even with Richard's apology, BDS co-founder Barghouti said such statements are a partial success for the movement. "It is a beginning of a success, but we don't take seriously what CEOs of companies say. We take seriously what they actually do."
Barghouti said BDS activists will keep protesting against Orange until the company ends its agreement with Partner Communications.
Critics accuse movement of anti-Semitism
To counter the growing influence of the movement, Jewish-American billionaires and political mega-donors Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban bridged their political differences -- Adelson is a Republican, Saban a Democrat -- and pledged to start and fund an anti-boycott movement.
"This isn't over. This is just the beginning," Saban told Channel 2 Israel about the Orange CEO and the boycott movement. "Any company that chooses to boycott business in Israel is going to look at this case, and once we're done, they're going to think twice whether they want to take on Israel or not. Trust me, this is just the beginning."
Netanyahu also promised to go on the offensive against the movement.
"We will gather forces in Israel and around the world to shatter the lies of our enemies, and we will fight for Israel's right to live in peace and security, to live at all," Netanyahu said.
Critics of the movement have accused Barghouti and his followers of racism and anti-Semitism. Barghouti denies the allegations.
"We are targeting a system of injustice. This should never be conflated with an attack on any group of people based on their identity," Barghouti said. "BDS targets institutions, complicit institutions, not individuals."
The cost for Israelis and Palestinians
Israel's economy will take a $15 billion hit from BDS and similar nonviolent resistance, largely because of the success of the movement in Europe, according to a new study from the RAND Corp. titled "The Costs of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict."
The study also said the Palestinians will lose about $2.4 billion.
But Barghouti said the price is worth it.