McDonald’s Israel ‘Boycott’ is 20 Years Old—So What’s the Big Deal?

Thanks;Emily L. HauserJun 28, 2013 4:15 pm EDT

20130630-072125.jpgIsraeli financial daily Calcalist reported on Wednesday that global behemoth McDonald’s won’t be opening a franchise in a shopping mall currently under construction in Ariel, Israel’s largest West Bank settlement—that, in fact, owner and general manager Omri Padan “refuses” to do so.

Rainer Jensen/DPA/Landov
McDonald’s Israel has clarified, however, that it’s always been company policy not to operate beyond the Green Line, and as the Israeli franchise has been a growing concern for twenty years, it requires a special kind of effort to see the refusal as anything new, or as a response to any sort of pressure. Sure it’s a boycott, but it’s a boycott that’s already a generation old.

In 1998, Padan told Haaretz

McDonald’s-Israel has not nor will it open a branch in any Israeli settlement beyond the Green Line. Back when I was the general manager of Kitan Textiles, I told the board I would resign immediately if they moved to open a plant [in] the West Bank. I have the privilege of not needing to compromise on my principles.

Indeed, a source close to Padan told Haaretz the other day that

This is a media spin generated by [mall owner] Rami Levy and his associates. Padan hadn’t even heard of this mall until he was approached seven months ago. He rejected the idea outright. Levy is trying to push his mall forward with media spin, whereas our chain’s policies concerning the opening of branches across the Green Line have been well known for years.

So the story currently rocketing around the Israeli and broader Jewish media is, as they say, a nothing-burger.

But buried in the hype is an interesting reflection of Israeli social reality: Omri Padan spent his army years in the IDF’s elite commando unit known as the sayeret matkal, the same legendary unit in which Benjamin Netanyahu also served, just a few years earlier.

Unlike Netanyahu, however, in 1978 Padan was among the founding members of Peace Now, the movement that launched the Israeli peace movement as it’s known today, in all its complexity. On the other hand, the mall in which McDonald’s will not be opening is being built by Rami Levy, a Likudnik “considered close to the Prime Minister.”

All of which is to say: These men more than likely know each other. Israel is a small place, and the military/political/business elite (which is, bottom line, one and the same) is even smaller. If Padan, Netanyahu, and Levy aren’t buddies or didn’t actually serve shoulder to shoulder, they’ve almost certainly attended the same weddings, share friends, might even feature in the background of each other’s family photo albums.

But even if not—even in the event that Omri Padan has never so much as crossed paths with either Levy or Netanyahu—there is simply no way that Rami Levy actually believed the owner of McDonald’s Israel would agree to open a branch in Ariel, and to the extent that his friend the Prime Minister knows anything about his business affairs, Netanyahu, too, knew there was no way.

Why spin the story, then? Why create something where there was nothing, why imply that Padan has taken a new stance, why hint that he has been influenced by the international BDS movement?

I don’t know, and I rather suspect that Levy and his associates would be unlikely to tell me.

But at a time of unprecedented animosity toward the Israeli left and its supporters abroad, a time when the government sees fit to keep its people ignorant of Arab peace moves and conduct a misinformation campaign against Israeli Bedouin citizens, it seems entirely of a piece that a right-wing businessman with connections in the Prime Minister’s office might want to try to embarrass and discredit a man like Padan—and possibly to provoke the following: The director of the Yesha Council (the settlement movement’s political arm) told the Jerusalem Post that

McDonald’s has turned from a business into an organization with an anti-Israeli political agenda. We expect that Israeli citizens, especially those living in [the settlements], will take this into account before entering the company’s franchises.

As McDonald’s controls a whopping 70 percent share of the Israeli fast food market, it’s not clear how much damage such a boycott would do.

But don’t worry about the settlers—Ariel will be getting Israel’s McDonald’s knock-off, Burger Ranch. “For the glory of the state of Israel,” the company announced.

At last, Herzl can rest in peace. Nothing-burgers for everyone!