MISHOR ADUMIM, WEST BANK — If he could turn back the clock, SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum would “never” have established a production plant on an Israeli Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank. In fact, he said, its location has turned out to be “a pain in the ass.”
“We’re here because we’re here — for historical reasons,” Birnbaum told the Forward in an exclusive interview Tuesday, when asked about the public row that has erupted over the controversial location of his company’s main facility.
The decision to locate SodaStream’s now contentious plant in this industrial park within the boundaries of the West Bank settlement Ma’ale Adumim, about 10 minutes outside of Jerusalem, did in fact predate Birnbaum’s arrival. It was a choice made by company founder Peter Weissburgh, back in the 1990’s, long before SodaStream was taken over by the Fortismo Capital Fund, it current owners, who appointed Birnbaum to head the firm in 2007.
But though he wouldn’t have opened the factory at its current site, Birnbaum said that its presence here is now a reality, and he won’t bow to political pressure to close it — even though the company is about to open a huge new plant in the Negev, within Israel’s internationally-recognized boundaries, which will replicate all functions of the West Bank plant, and dwarf it.
The reason for staying is loyalty to approximately 500 Palestinians who are among the plant’s 1,300 employees, Birnbaum claimed. While other employees could relocate on the other side of the Green Line if the plant moved, the West Bank Palestinian workers could not, and would suffer financially, he argued.
“We will not throw our employees under the bus to promote anyone’s political agenda,” he said, adding that he “just can’t see how it would help the cause of the Palestinians if we fired them.”
Birnbaum, who spoke to the Forward from his office in the plant, offered his comments during his first interview since controversy over the plant’s location was reignited by the company’s recent decision to sign actress Scarlett Johansson as its new global ambassador.
In the lead-up to Johannson’s debut as a company spokesperson in a high-profile commercial to be broadcast during this Sunday’s Super Bowl, critics, including advocates for boycotting Israeli products on account of the occupation, have targeted the actress and the company for the soda maker’s manufacturing location. West Bank settlements, including Ma’ale Adumim are regarded as illegal by the international community.