Burger King, in a pickle, tells Israeli franchisee to close

Arab Americans have it their way in dispute over Whoppers in West Bank

August 27, 1999|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Burger King delivered a whopper of a punch yesterday to Israelis living in a West Bank settlement -- no more burgers for them.

A five-week campaign by Arab Americans to shut down a Burger King outlet in the settlement of Ma'ale Adumin paid off when the Miami-based corporation told its Israeli franchisee that it could no longer sell Burger King products at a food court there because the outlet was in occupied territory, not in sovereign Israel as it had been told.

"For us, this is a commercial decision. We do not get involved in political debates," said a Burger King spokeswoman from Miami. "We are in the business of providing Whoppers, french fries and Cokes to customers."

But the July opening of a Burger King counter in a mall in the Ma'ale Adumin settlement thrust the corporation into the center of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Ma'ale Adumin, a sprawling neighborhood of hillside homes and apartments just east of Jerusalem, was founded on West Bank land conquered by Israel during the 1967 war with Jordan and other Arab countries.

About 1 million Palestinians live in the West Bank, which the Israeli military controlled exclusively until the implementation of the 1993 Oslo peace accords.

Since its occupation of the West Bank, Israel has built dozens of Jewish settlements in the disputed territory. The fate of the settlements is among the critical issues that must be decided in a final round of negotiations aimed at resolving the conflict.

The campaign to shut down the Burger King counter in the Ma'ale Adumin mall began on the Internet with a plea by two activists, said Hussein Ibish, a spokesman for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington.

Support widened as 10 Arab and Muslim American groups last week called for a worldwide boycott of Burger King.

Last month, the American-Arab committee asked the Cairo-based Arab League to lend its support. The Arab League planned to discuss the proposed boycott of Burger King at its Sept. 12 meeting, Ibish said.

Jewish organizations were lobbying Burger King officials to resist the pressure.

Burger King, which opened the first of its 46 outlets in Israel in August 1994, also has 84 outlets in Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Yesterday, Burger King Corp. issued an announcement, saying it had ordered its independent franchisee, Rikamor Ltd., to stop selling its products at the West Bank mall.

"The reasons for this action are a breach of its franchise contract and misrepresentation," a statement said.

The Rikamor company could not be reached for comment late last night.

But in a letter to the company, Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the national Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil rights group, called the decision "a blatant capitulation to American Arab and American Muslim organizations."

The Burger King statement went on to say the company had made its decision "on a purely commercial basis and in the best interest of the hundreds of thousands of people who depend on the Burger King reputation for their livelihood.

"Burger King has no interest in taking sides in the Arab Israeli peace process, except to welcome its early and mutually acceptable outcome."

Ibish, of the American-Arab committee, applauded the decision. "They are saying they have been misled and lied to. It's not your usual corporate press release," he said.

"The fact that this is not part of Israel is not something that is really up for discussion."

He also noted the decision was not without precedent. He said the Days Inn chain closed a motel it opened in the West Bank. And Ben and Jerry's, the Vermont ice cream maker, canceled a contract with an Israeli company that bottled water on the Golan Heights, which Israel won from Syria by Israel in the 1967 war.

"This was always going to go one way in the end," Ibish said of the BurgerKing announcement. "Experience certainly shows when the problems with this are exposed, companies with brand names have something to lose. It really is not defensible."

David Williams, president of Burger King's Middle East division, said the company wants to expand in the Mideast.

"We currently have 130 restaurants in the region and firm plans to develop in existing markets, as well as opening new countries, such as Lebanon and Jordan," he said.

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