The chief of the Israeli company SodaStream has launched a scathing attack on the country’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, blaming him for putting 500 of his former Palestinian employees out of work.
Daniel Birnbaum, who has been at the centre of a series of rows that saw SodaStream’s factory moved from the occupied territories to a new site in Israel’s Negev desert, insisted it was untrue that his company had been forced to relocate by pressure from the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
Instead, said Birnbaum in a hard-hitting interview in the Times of Israel that drew the immediate ire of Netanyahu’s office, it was Israel not BDS that was responsible for the 500 Palestinian job losses. Birnbaum, who was a key speaker at an anti-BDS initiative in the US earlier this year, accused Netanyahu and his government of perpetuating the conflict with Palestinians for its own benefit, describing Netanyahu as “the prime minister of conflict”.
He said: “It pains me to say that I believe this administration is nurturing the conflict in all its evil manifestations. They nurture the hate and the boycott and they nurture separatism.”
The claims by Birnbaum are doubly damaging because he had been held up by the Israeli government as an example of the harm they said had been done by the BDS movement. Indeed, the claim that BDS pressure had led to the loss of 500 Palestinian jobs has been a high-profile talking point of the Israeli government, embassies and its supporters.
Saying that the plan to move the factory had been hatched when BDS was in its infancy, Birnbaum – who describes himself as a “pragmatic rightwinger” – insisted that the company had wanted to retain its Palestinian workforce when it moved to a larger site to accommodate the company’s growth.
“Our plan was to retain everyone who wanted to continue working … But we were hot on retaining our employees, including the 500 Palestinians,” he said. “I started talking with government officials to secure the permits [for the Palestinian employees] … It’s actually very simple because all these employees had already been screened by the Israeli security and they fell within a quota that existed.”
After asking the Israeli government for 350 permits, however, Birnbaum was surprised to be offered only 120 despite the fact, he said, that all of his staff had passed Israeli security clearance to work in the old factory inside a settlement. The figure has since dwindled to zero.
Describing a 2014 meeting with Netanyahu’s staff, Birnbaum claimed it was Netanyahu’s intervention that led to his Palestinian staff losing their permits and their jobs. “The PM saw the opportunity here,” he said, “and he created his manipulative spin at the expense of my loyal employees. The prime minister’s office actually intervened to stop the employment of our Palestinians so that Bibi [as Netanyahu is known] can then point a finger at the BDS.”
Birnbaum’s account was rejected by Netanyahu’s office, which accused him of “caving” in to BDS even as it challenged his version of events, saying the prime minister had intervened to help Birnbaum. “The lack of gratitude is appalling,” the official said. “The PM could have said, ‘we’re not helping him at all’. Maybe we shouldn’t have helped him. To say it’s personal animus is despicable.”