Oxfam’s uncompromising stance on Scarlett Johansson’s endorsement of SodaStream has shone the spotlight on business issues surrounding Israeli settlements

Israel-headquartered SodaStream, maker of the home-carbonation drinks system, found itself in choppy waters in January when it signed Hollywood actress Scarlett Johansson as its “global brand ambassador”. It seemed an appropriate arrangement, because Johansson has “loved sparkling water since childhood”, according to SodaStream. But there was a problem.

Johansson was also an ambassador for Oxfam, which opposes Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories. SodaStream has a manufacturing plant in one of the settlements. Something had to give, and Johansson resigned as an Oxfam ambassador, a role she had held for eight years.

Oxfam says Johansson had helped to “highlight the impact of natural disasters and raise funds to save lives and fight poverty”, but her advocacy of SodaStream was “incompatible” with her ongoing representation of Oxfam. Companies that “operate in settlements further the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities”, Oxfam says. The charity adds that it was “opposed to all trade from Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law”.

Fizzing response

SodaStream has come out fighting. Its chief executive, Daniel Birnbaum, says that, in effect, the location of the factory was irrelevant because SodaStream would continue manufacturing there if the area became part of a future Palestinian state. In the meantime, the company was paying Israeli-level wages to hundreds of Palestinian employees, thus supporting the Palestinian economy, Birnbaum says. Boycotts of goods from the settlements would only hurt Palestinians, he argues.

This is not an argument that convinces Arafat Shoukri, director of the Council for European Palestinian Relations. “The settlements are illegal and they should not be there. Companies should not go there,” he says.

Shoukri argues that the short-term interests of Palestinians who work for SodaStream cannot be prioritised over the long-term goals of the peace process. Oxfam’s move was a “step in the right direction”. He adds that companies are also free to direct their investments to the Palestinian territories.

An Oxfam spokesman says: “We would judge investment in the Palestinian territories in the same way we would judge investment elsewhere – we would be in favour of investment done in an ethical manner that benefits local communities and helps lift people out of poverty.”

Ultimately the SodaStream spat is an argument about the economic context for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process: should the future Palestinian economy be based on Israeli investment that creates jobs for Palestinians, or should a freer Palestinian economy be allowed to emerge?

Controls implemented by Israel remain the dominant factor in Palestinian economic development. “Government of Israel restrictions on the movement and access of goods and people between the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Jerusalem and external markets continue to affect the private sector and limit economic growth,” says the website of the United States consulate-general in Jerusalem.

Nevertheless, there are bright spots. Palestine has a growing number of ICT-savvy graduates that might attract software and internet companies, for example. If they choose to invest, those companies will have to decide on which side of the fence to establish themselves.

business issues  Israel  NGO campaign  Oxfam  Palestine  public relations  Scarlet Johansson  SodaStream 

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