The beloved ice cream company's choice to stop selling in occupied territories could pave the way for similar decisions from other major companies.

On July 19, Ben & Jerry’s created much controversy when it announced its decision to stop selling its ice cream in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT). Known for supporting social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter, the Vermont-based company explained that a continuation of such sales in the West Bank and East Jerusalem would be “inconsistent with our values.”

Israeli leaders and elites have reacted angrily to Ben & Jerry’s decision. Prime Minister Naftali Bennet said the company “decided to brand itself as anti-Israel ice cream” and warned that his government will “aggressively” deal with the British multinational Unilever, of which Ben & Jerry’s is a subsidiary. 

Bennet's predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, took to Twitter to declare that “now we Israelis know where NOT to buy ice cream.” Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Tel Aviv’s ambassador to Washington have started pressing US officials to take legal action against the American company, which Lapid claimed is guilty of a “shameful surrender to antisemitism.” 

President Isaac Herzog lashed out too, accusing the ice cream producer of “a new kind of terrorism”. Economics Minister Orna Barbivay shared a video of her throwing away a carton of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream on TikTok.

Considering that the company’s decision will hardly have any direct impact on Israelis—especially given that Ben & Jerry’s will still sell its ice cream in Israel-proper, what explains this “maximalist off the rails response” from the upper echelons of Israel’s government? 

To be sure, the intense drama currently unfolding is not about ice cream, nor the American company’s decision in itself. Instead, the Israeli leadership is frightened by its potentially wider ramifications. 

Put simply, officials in the Jewish state are terrified by the possibility of Ben & Jerry’s setting a popular example that more high-profile western companies follow.

An expected response 

Perhaps the Israeli government’s response should surprise no one. There is a logic behind such dramatic behavior aimed at garnering international attention. By creating a heated row over Ben & Jerry’s decision, or other relatively small actions, officialdom in Israel and some American politicians such Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma and the New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio want to deter other companies from following in the ice cream company’s footsteps. 

Such tactics have worked in the past. For example, in November 2018 Airbnb announced its decision to stop listing properties in West Bank settlements, which led to Israeli officials reacting angrily and Israeli-Americans filing a federal lawsuit against the California-based vacation rental company. Ultimately, by April 2019 Airbnb reversed its decision.

Despite international law not recognising the legitimacy of Israel’s sovereign claims to the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the country’s leadership generally does not distinguish between Israel-proper and the OPT where Jewish settlers reside. 

Thus, from the perspective of Israeli officials, Ben & Jerry’s decision to rebuke Israel’s colonisation of Palestinian land constitutes not a stance against the Israeli occupation, but one against Israel as a nation-state. The message is clear: Private companies that make this distinction and refuse to do business in the OPT  are engaged in actions against Israel altogether (even if they continue doing business in Israel-proper).

In essence, the Israeli state’s ability to further consolidate its control of stolen land in the OPT—and to try to legitimise it before the world—is at stake. The angry responses from Israeli officials and elites result from their fears that Ben & Jerry’s will draw further attention to Israel’s human rights violations in the OPT and the Palestinians’ lack of freedom in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. 

The “Ice Cream War” 

What are the next steps that Israel will take vis-à-vis the ice cream company? Ben & Jerry’s will possibly be forced to make a decision between resuming its sales in the OPT or be cut off from Israel entirely—the latter being a possible outcome if Ben & Jerry’s fails to find an Israeli distributor willing to accept any line between Israel-proper and the OPT. That would pose a dilemma for the company. 

Under such circumstances would Ben & Jerry’s go the Airbnb route and reverse its decision, or accept that it must stop selling in Israel-proper as a price for its solidarity with the Palestinians? Time will tell. 

Regardless, Israel is taking note of how discourse surrounding the Palestinian struggle is shifting in the US. Underscored by the rhetoric from certain lawmakers in Washington amid the May 2021 Gaza-Israel war, as well as Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s 2020 re-election,  American politicians no longer face political suicide if they criticise Israeli conduct or Washington’s unconditional support for the Middle Eastern country. 

Within the Democratic Party, particularly among its younger and more progressive members, positions on Israel-Palestine are changing in ways that terrify the Israeli leadership. 

The decision by Ben & Jerry’s adds to such Israeli concerns about the future of the ‘special relationship’ between America and Israel. If other US-based companies with iconic brands join Ben & Jerry’s in concluding that a continuation of their sales in the OPT goes against their “values”, the rate at which discourse in America surrounding Israel-Palestine is changing could accelerate. 

For leaders and elites in Israel, such developments are deeply unsettling. Accountability from the US is something that Israel fears. But it would bode well for the Palestinians (and Israelis too) if the Israeli government is forced to start getting used to more of it. 

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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