A leaked foreign ministry cable reveals the Israeli government's aim to stir popular sentiment in the US and elsewhere against Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever.
The Israeli government has launched a special task force to pressure ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s to revoke its decision to stop selling its products in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories.
“We need to make use of the 18 months that are left until the decision comes into force and try to change it,” a classified Israeli foreign ministry cable seen by Axios said.
“We want to create long-term pressure on Unilever and Ben & Jerry’s by consumers, politicians, and in the press and social media in order to lead to a dialogue with the companies.”
It added that the decision to halt sales in the occupied territories bordered on “extreme cancel culture” and believed the company “caved and cooperated” with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which was partially “motivated by antisemitism”.
The cable was sent on July 22, three days after Ben & Jerry’s announced it would cut ties with its Israeli manufacturer and distributor to end sales over the Green Line from January 2023.
The firm however stated it will continue to sell its products within Israel’s pre-1967 borders. It also did not endorse the BDS campaign, nor did its parent company Unilever.
The move was hailed by pro-Palestinian groups and welcomed by the official BDS campaign, but provoked a strong reaction from Israeli leaders and pro-Israel groups.
Israeli president Isaac Herzog denounced the move as a “new form of terrorism”; foreign minister Yair Lapid said that the company “caved to antisemitism”; and prime minister Naftali Bennett promised Israel would use “all tools at its disposal” to fight the decision.
In the wake of the news, an Israeli app called Act.IL has directed a troll army to influence the online conversation surrounding the boycott.
Forging a pressure campaign
Concerned that Ben & Jerry’s move will encourage other international companies to adopt similar steps to boycott Israeli settlements, the ministry cable makes clear Tel Aviv's aim of sending a strong message.
According to the leaked dispatch, Israel’s diplomatic corps in North America and Europe were instructed to stir Jewish organisations, pro-Israel advocacy groups and evangelicals to demonstrate in front of Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever offices.
The foreign ministry also pushed for critical public statements to “encourage public protests in the media and directly with key executives in both companies” that would then be amplified to increase pressure on Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever to reverse their decision.
Additionally, the cable pushed the Israeli Embassy in DC and Israeli consulates across the US for activation of anti-BDS legislation in several states.
On July 20, Israeli ambassador to the US Gilad Erdan contacted governors of 35 states where anti-BDS laws had been passed, and urged them to sanction Ben & Jerry’s and its parent company Unilever as specified under those laws, which require divestment from any company that boycotts Israel.
In an op-ed for the New York Times yesterday, Ben & Jerry’s co-founders wrote that it was “possible to support Israel and oppose some of its policies,” and threw their unequivocal support for the company’s decision to end business in the occupied territories, calling it “one of the most important decisions the company has made in its 43-year history.”
“We fundamentally reject the notion that it is antisemitic to question the policies of the State of Israel,” they said.
Ben & Jerry’s isn’t the first major company to take a stand against Israeli settlements. McDonald's in fact took the same position back in 2013 when it stopped sales beyond the Green Line.
The difference was the fast-food chain giant chose to avoid broadcasting its policy in a public statement, and backlash to their decision was largely muted.