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Speaking to the Forward from his office in the plant, Birnbaum claimed he maintains the facility in Mishor Adumim out of loyalty to some 500 Palestinians who are among the plant’s 1,300 employees. 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.”
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 15 minutes outside Jerusalem, predated Birnbaum’s arrival. It was a choice made by company founder Peter Wiseburgh back in the 1990s, long before SodaStream was taken over by the Fortissimo Capital fund, its current owners, who appointed Birnbaum to head the firm in 2007.
Birnbaum said that if he could turn back the clock, he 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.”
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 the plant — even though the company is about to open a huge new facility in the Negev, within Israel’s internationally recognized boundaries, that will replicate all functions of the West Bank plant and dwarf it.
Birnbaum added that if a Palestinian state comes into being, as is the aim of current U.S.-brokered talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, SodaStream will also be happy to stay and pay its taxes to the new Palestinian state.
“We already have factories under the control of the Chinese, the Germans, the Americans and many other countries,” he said. “So what’s the problem to have a factory in the Palestinian state-to-be? We don’t give a hoot where the factory is going to be.”
Birnbaum’s adviser, Maurice Silber, said that within the company, “everybody is against the occupation.” But it does not follow, he said, that because SodaStream operates in an occupied area, it violates human rights. Eventually, Silber said, SodaStream could become the “seed of the future Palestinian economy.”
Contact Nathan Jeffay at firstname.lastname@example.org