Israel’s prime minister has warned Unilever’s chief executive of “severe consequences” after its Ben & Jerry’s brand announced it would stop selling ice cream in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Naftali Bennett, an ultranationalist who took office in June, called Unilever’s chief executive Alan Jope on Tuesday and told him Unilever had taken a “clearly anti-Israel step” that would be met with a “strong” response, including legal action.
The spat highlights the pitfalls of brands attempting to satisfy polarised political opinions. The problem is heightened at Unilever, which agreed to give Ben & Jerry’s an unusual amount of independence when it acquired the brand in 2000.
The maker of Cookie Dough and Phish Food ice cream had announced the change on Monday following years of pressure from activists, saying sales in the West Bank and East Jerusalem were “inconsistent with our values” and it would withdraw when a deal with a local distributor expires in 2022.
Settlements in the territories, which were captured by the Jewish state in 1967, are considered illegal by most of the world but have been championed by Bennett.
Bennett said: “This decision is morally wrong and I believe that it will become clear that it is also commercially wrong.”
Israel’s foreign minister Yair Lapid, a centrist, said he would ask US states that have passed legislation against the anti-settlement Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions campaign to take legal action against Ben & Jerry’s over a “shameful surrender to antisemitism”.
As Unilever was blasted by the Israeli government, it was also fighting its own subsidiary over the manner and details of the announcement. Ben & Jerry’s has an independent board, whose role was enshrined in the deal made when the UK group acquired the Vermont-based ice cream maker more than two decades ago.
The board said the announcement attributed to Ben & Jerry’s had been made by Unilever without its consent, “in violation of the spirit and the letter of the acquisition agreement”. Although it correctly stated that Ben & Jerry’s intended to withdraw from the occupied Palestinian territories, the Ben & Jerry’s board complained about an explicit reference, added by Unilever, to continuing selling ice cream in Israel. No such decision had been made, a board member told NBC.
Unilever said in a separate statement on Monday that it was “fully committed to our presence in Israel, where we have invested in our people, brands and business for several decades”. It did not immediately respond to further questions.
The company has operated in Israel since 1938, when the area remained under British control, and has four manufacturing sites there, according to Israel’s Ministry of Economy and Industry.
The consumer goods industry had regarded Ben & Jerry’s deal with Unilever as a trailblazing example of a brand known for strong ethical stances retaining that emphasis even as it was sold to a multinational. Its independent board has the power to veto actions that might affect its social mission and “brand integrity” issues such as trademarks.
Ben & Jerry’s has strongly supported the Black Lives Matter movement and acted before Unilever last year in joining a boycott of advertising on Facebook in a protest against racist and hateful content.