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.
But Birnbaum said 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.”
Those comments may prove controversial among settlers and other right-wingers in Israel, who are currently skewering Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his recent suggestion that some settlements could stay in place under Palestinian rule after a peace deal. But in contrast to the settlement movement’s negative response to the idea, Birnbaum is keen for his company to be the guinea pig. “I really don’t care where the border is,” he commented.
Unlike the question of Israeli homes in a foreign entity, he noted, there’s already ample precedent for Israeli-owned factories operating in foreign areas.
Birnbaum’s advisor, 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, he said, SodaStream could become the “seed of the future Palestinian economy.”
At the plant’s cafeteria, awareness of the current international controversy over Scarlett Johannson’s new role at the company was clearly widespread among employees. During the Forward’s visit, Birnbaum took to the cafeteria floor to give some 250 Palestinian workers a kind of pep talk about the issue, urging them to ignore the political attacks. “We are making history for the Palestinian people and the Israeli people,” he told them in Hebrew, followed by a translator who rendered his comments into Arabic. Birnbaum reassured the workers about their jobs and said he wanted to bring “more and more hands” into the factory as SodaStream grows.
The Palestinians applauded these comments. But then Birnbaum added with a flourish: “Scarlett Johannson would be proud of you!” And at the sound of Johannson’s name — even before the translation — applause among the assembly of mostly male, 30-something Palestinian workers burst out again, palpably louder.
During discussions between a Forward reporter and about a half-dozen of these Palestinian employees, conducted out of earshot of Israeli managers, none complained of labor abuses, or of receiving pay below the Israeli minimum wage. Asked about the calls by anti-occupation activists to boycott SodaStream, one spoke about the dearth of jobs in the Palestinian Authority economy.
Back in his office, Birnbaum denied that SodaStream’s West Bank location brings his company economic benefits that it could not just as easily get in industrial areas available to it within sovereign Israel. A number of these industrial areas, including the Negev site where SodaStream’s new plant will be completed soon, receive the same tax breaks as the Mishor Adumim industrial park. And while the company’s 2012 annual report suggested that reducing operations at Mishor Adumim could have a negative impact on the company, Birnbaum said that SodaStream “could move without any economic hardship.”
Contact Nathan Jeffay at email@example.com