Latest SodaStream Drama Falling Flat
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Latest SodaStream Drama Falling Flat

BDS, Palestinian workers, and the company’s new Negev plant.

Contributing Editor, The NY Jewish Week

Can everybody please stop talking nonsense about Sodastream?

The company, which closed down its West Bank plant in October and moved its Middle East production solely inside the Green Line, last week said goodbye to its last Palestinian workers.

When the main plant for its home-carbonation machines was in a settlement, located close to Palestinian areas, it employed hundreds of Palestinians. Now, it’s located in the Negev Desert, and the company is expected to employ Israeli citizens.

SodaStream got a temporary permit for 74 Palestinians to stay with the company for a few months despite its move into Israel’s internationally recognized borders, where the employment of Palestinians is rarer. But last week time ran out, and despite the company’s utter fury, the employees left. They are expected to be replaced by people who live close to the new plant, many of whom are Arabs from Israel’s impoverished Bedouin community.

This is, of course, the same company that was the target of intense protests by the anti-Israel boycott movement BDS, especially around the time of the 2014 Super Bowl when it put out an ad starring Scarlett Johansson. And so, two and two have been added together to make five.

“BDS efforts cost Palestinian workers their SodaStream jobs,” yelled a headline in the right-leaning Israel Hayom newspaper. Despite the divergent politics at the left-wing Haaretz, it drew the same conclusion. “Sodastream’s last Palestinian workers lose jobs after BDS pressure leads company to relocate,” claims its headline.

Commentators have rushed to discuss the development. “Another great victory for BDS,” wrote Sherwin Pomerantz in the Jerusalem Post sarcastically, calling it a “big financial defeat” for the families of the Palestinian workers. Even an anonymous official from the Prime Minister’s Office was quoted saying that “BDS” is behind what has happened.

They say never let the facts get in the way of a good story, and in this case, there’s a bizarre case of media, anti-boycott forces and pro-boycott forces all doing exactly this in (uncoordinated) unison. For media, it’s a good headline. For those who oppose boycotts, this seems to be a way of illustrating its absurdity. And for the boycotters, the kudos from the suggestion that they are responsible for SodaStream’s move outweighs any qualms about the unemployed Palestinians.

But SodaStream didn’t move inside the Green Line as a knee-jerk reaction to the boycott movement. The factory where its operations are now centered was being planned long before the 2014 Super Bowl when the furor about its location reached full throttle.

A grant from the Israeli government toward construction of its new Negev plant had already been approved in April 2012. And it wasn’t hard to work out why the company was attracted to the Negev — there are swaths of empty land and large state incentives to get companies relocating there and employing local Bedouins. In short, the Negev now offers the kind of attractive prospects that Peter Wiseburgh, the British-born Israeli who established SodaStream in the 1990s, saw in the West Bank when he was drawn to a cheap and empty plot there.

The company had, back in 2012, considered the possibility that politics would force it to leave the West Bank, but it wasn’t building for an exit strategy — the company was growing at a dizzying pace and it needed more facilities. The next year, however, the earth shook under SodaStream.

It’s a company that dreamed of rivaling Coke and Pepsi and built its marketing strategy around this desire, but it took its eye off the ball. And when it did, people started spurning sugary fizzy drinks. In short, at some point in late 2013 it was focused on the wrong market, and its sales then stopped rising and dropped significantly. It started the hard work of redesigning products and rebranding itself to focus on fizzy water rather than sugary drinks.

So here’s a company that decided to build an additional plant when it was at an all-time high, and which has since found itself in a very different situation — having had to totally rethink its focus, realize that it’s not the big hitter it thought it was, and cut its costs. It has shuttered a facility in northern Israel and, yes, decided to leave the West Bank instead of keeping the plant there in addition to the new Negev site. Yet all the complexity that surrounded the company’s decision-making is widely ignored as people presume that the boycotters simply cast a spell and it worked.

SodaStream’s CEO, Daniel Birnbaum, has said he didn’t leave the West Bank plant based on boycott pressure, but he did acknowledge that once the decision was made, the pressure made them execute it quicker than it may have otherwise. Even if he’s underplaying the significance of the boycotters’ pressure slightly, it was but one factor among many in deciding the fate of the West Bank plant.

Why does all of this matter? Because when the decision is presented as a simple cause-and-effect response to boycotters, it buoys them beyond all imagination. It gives their cynical movement the recognition and sense of success that it craves — and which it then uses to strengthen itself.

Now, if we can’t rage against the boycott movement for the Palestinian SodaStream workers losing their jobs, can we unleash anger toward the Israeli government? SodaStream certainly has, running a PR campaign to this effect, and Birnbaum has called the failure to renew the permits of Palestinian workers to be “ridiculous” and “immoral.” As regular readers know, I don’t hesitate to criticize Israel’s government, but these claims against it are unwarranted.

I hope for a day when there is a comprehensive peace plan, and there are processes in place for Palestinian workers to have long-term jobs at Israeli companies, but we are a long way off. Israeli companies know that if they are located within the Green Line, there is no guarantee they can rely on Palestinian workers. SodaStream was located in the West Bank and, taking into account all the implications of its decision, decided to move to the other side of the Green Line. It has to embrace all that goes along with that based on the political reality of the day, not the political reality that it may like to see in existence.

As for the company’s suggestion that Jerusalem is wasting a ready-made opportunity for positive PR, that’s not so clear. Yes, having Palestinians in a high-profile company that touts its peace ethos could have promoted a progressive message about Israel. But it could have led to the opposite outcome. The current reality in this part of the world is harsh, and passage from the West Bank to Israel can be far from simple for Palestinians. Certain security situations result in closures. Every time SodaStream employees were subjected to closures or prevented from getting to work, that fact could have generated a news story suggesting that Israel is a thorn in the side of this coexistence company.

Beyond all of this, SodaStream stresses the large number of people supported in extended Palestinian families by the wages it pays. One of the government’s reasons for investing so heavily in bringing business to the Negev is to see it transform reality for local residents. Just as 74 jobs support big Palestinian families, they can support big Bedouin families. The government is entitled to want to see its investment in the Negev region benefit locals, who are its own citizens.

What the current media fest has done is to obscure the expansion of job opportunities in the Negev, including Bedouin tribes, by putting all attention on Palestinian work permits that were never really expected to be renewed. And it has given much more oxygen to the boycott movement, which will help it turn into the monster we think it has already become.

Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.

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