'PM of conflict': Netanyahu to blame for pushing Palestinians out of jobs, says SodaStream CEO

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. © Ronen Zvulun
The CEO of SodaStream has accused Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu of being responsible for the sacking of hundreds of Palestinian employees at his company, blaming him for dismantling the “island of peace” the firm had created for both Jews and Palestinians.

Speaking during an exclusive interview with the Times of Israel, SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum accused Netanyahu of being personally involved in a bureaucratic process which forced the company to fire its Palestinian employees.

According to Birnbaum, it all began when SodaStream decided it needed more space, and opted to close its West Bank factory. The move did, however, follow a boycott campaign against the company, in which critics accused it of making money on land “stolen” by Israel.

Though Birnbaum insists the move was made voluntarily, he says the Israeli government is arguing that SodaStream was forced to move due to the pressure from the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, as well as fire the 500 Palestinians working there.

But the company insists that despite claims from the Netanyahu government, it wanted to retain 350 of its 500 Palestinian employees to work at its new plant in the Negev.

However, according to Birnbaum keeping such a high number of employees was impossible because the company was initially only granted permits for 120 of the Palestinian workers – a number which new conditions later reduced to 74.

Since February, those remaining 74 employees have been barred from Israel, their permits retroactively canceled.

“Apparently our 74 Palestinians represent a threat to [Netanyahu's] agenda,” Birnbaum said.

The CEO says Netanyahu – who he refers to as the “prime minister of conflict” – is responsible for the outcome, adding that his office “intervened to stop the employment of our Palestinians so that Bibi [Netanyahu] can then point a finger at the BDS.”

Birnbaum did not mince his words when speaking about the prime minister, accusing him of “systematically spreading hate within Israel between Jews and Arabs and between Orthodox and secular...”

“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,” he said.

Unsurprisingly, the story coming from Netanyahu's office is starkly different.

An official who asked to remain anonymous told the Times of Israel that Birnbaum had relocated his factory because of pressure from the BDS movement. He then noted that once SodaStream was out of the West Bank and inside Israel, it was required to comply with Israeli labor laws – meaning priority had to be given to Israeli workers.

“SodaStream went from no quotas at Mishor Adumim, moved inside the Green Line, and was required to follow Israeli labor laws,” the official said. “So it had to lose its Palestinian workers.”

The official went on to accuse Birnbaum of being ungrateful towards Netanyahu, as the PM had assisted Birnbaum with a grace period during the transition, arranging for two extensions for Palestinian workers.

“The prime minister wanted to help make the transition more smooth. 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.”

Meanwhile, Birnbaum says that Netanyahu would benefit from taking a leaf out of SodaStream's book, choosing to boost the number of Palestinians working in Israel rather than depriving them of opportunities. He stated that the biggest terrorist threat from Palestinians stems from those working in Israel without permission, stressing that such permits could “buy security.”