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Israel PM warns Unilever boss over Ben & Jerry’s boycott

Israel warned consumer goods giant Unilever Plc (ULVR.L) on Tuesday of “severe consequences” from a decision by subsidiary Ben & Jerry’s to stop selling ice cream in Israeli-occupied territories, and urged U.S. states to invoke anti-boycott laws.

Monday’s announcement followed pro-Palestinian pressure on the Vermont-based company over its business in Israel and Jewish settlements in the West Bank, handled since 1987 through a licensee partner, Ben & Jerry’s Israel.

Most countries consider Israeli settlements on Palestinian land to be illegal. Israel disputes this.

The country’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, in a phone call with Unilever CEO Alan Jope, called the move a “glaring anti-Israel measure” and said that the government would move “aggressively against any boycott measure targeting civilians,” according to the premier’s office.

Ben & Jerry’s decision was also met with a swift response from some smaller grocery chains operating in the New York metro area, which has a large population of Jewish residents, saying they would either reduce or remove Ben & Jerry’s products from shelves.

Ben & Jerry’s, based in South Burlington, Vermont, is known for its commitment to social justice that has recently included strongly supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, LGBTQ+ rights and electoral campaign finance reform.

It was acquired by Unilever in 2000 in a deal that allows it to operate with more autonomy than other subsidiaries, including giving legal powers to an independent board to make decisions over its social mission, brand integrity and policies.

On Monday, the Chunky Monkey ice-cream maker released a statement saying the brand would not renew its license agreement with its Israeli partner when it expires at the end of 2022.

Ben & Jerry’s said selling its products in the occupied Palestinian territories was “inconsistent with its values”.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price declined to respond to Ben & Jerry’s decision, calling it “the actions of a private company.” But he reiterated the Biden administration’s opposition to the global boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement that seeks to isolate Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians.

“We firmly reject the BDS movement, which unfairly singles out Israel,” Price told a regular press briefing.