Orange CEO due for Israel visit at week's end following spat: official

Reuters News
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Posted: Jun 10, 2015 11:31 AM

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Orange CEO Stephane Richard is expected to visit Israel at the end of the week, a senior government official said on Wednesday, after sparking a diplomatic spat over his remarks about ending a licensing deal there.

Israel protested to France after Richard said last week that 25 percent state-owned Orange planned to terminate an arrangement with Israel's Partner Communications, and that he would do so "tomorrow morning" if the contracts allowed.

The remarks angered Israel, which fears diplomatic and economic isolation over the deadlock in peacemaking with the Palestinians and its settlements in occupied territory that most world powers deem illegal.

Orange later suggested Richard's comments were not political, saying they reflected a broader desire and strategy of not licensing its brand where it was not directly in control of the business.

Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely said in an interview with Israel's Army Radio that Richard "is supposed to arrive at the end of the week, as far as I know". She had no details about his trip but confirmed Israeli media reports that Richard had written a letter of apology for his comments.

Richard had accepted an invitation earlier this week from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to visit Israel, but neither side had said yet when the trip would take place.

Seeking to defuse the dispute, Richard denied supporting a boycott of Israel, saying he had been misunderstood. He spoke warmly of Israel in an interview with its biggest-selling newspaper. On Saturday, Orange said it had no plan to quit the country.

Netanyahu instructed the Israeli ambassador in Paris not to accept a request by Richard to meet there, diplomatic sources said. "If he wants to explain, he can come to Israel to do so," one source quoted Netanyahu as saying.

On Monday, an Orange spokesman said Richard welcomed Israel's invitation and the opportunity to clear up what he described as a misunderstanding.

"He will go to Israel soon and will provide all the necessary clarifications to end this controversy and reaffirm the group's commitment," the spokesman said.

(Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Mark Heinrich)