Posted on August 30, 1999 in Washington Watch

In the end, Burger King did the right thing.

BK, as it is known in the United States, is a multinational corporation famous for its “charbroiled” hamburgers. The company has over 10,000 franchises around the world. Of these, 130 are in the Middle East, with 46 in Israel and 84 in Arab countries.

In the United States, BK has developed a progressive approach to franchising that offers ownership and management opportunities to a number of ethnic minorities–including Arab Americans.

A little over a month ago, BK became involved in a controversy when a coalition of one dozen Arab American and American Muslim organizations insisted that the company close down a BK restaurant operating in Ma’ale Adumim–an Israeli settlement in the West Bank.

The coalition called on Arab Americans and American Muslims to protest. Some stopped eating at Burger King and some organized demonstrations in front of U.S. Burger King outlets. Still others organized a rather extensive and creative letter-writing protest to BK’s headquarters.

There were also those who over-reacted. Some organizations and Arab editorial writers called for a full Arab boycott of BK, urging the Arab League and some Arab countries to take punitive action against the corporation. This was done without recognition of the fact that it would only punish the Arab owners and operators of BK. They would be the most hurt by such a boycott. The real culprit, the Israeli company that opened the Ma’ale Adumim outlet would not have been effected at all.

More troubling still were the protests of some American Jewish organizations who denounced the Arab American and American Muslim effort. I was personally targeted by this campaign led by one prominent group which denounced me in a press release for “returning to the pre-Oslo era of Arab boycotts of Israel and companies doing business in Israel.” The group went further, criticizing my opposition to the Ma’ale Adumim BK saying that my attitude was “inappropriate for a group supporting the peace process.”

I was intrigued that in their release attacking my objection to the Ma’ale Adumim BK, the Jewish groups referred to the settlement as being in a “suburb of Jerusalem.” Another extremist pro-Israel group in the United States described the settlement as “a part of Israel” and stated that it is “scheduled to become a part of the Jerusalem municipality in the near future.”

The response, I issued, to these attacks was straightforward.

The protest against the Ma’ale Adumim BK, I noted, was not about boycotting Israel. At issue, were none of the restaurants in Israel itself. The protest was about promoting Palestinian economic rights and political justice and supporting the Middle East peace process.

Ma’ale Adumim was not, I pointed out, a suburb of Jerusalem. It was miles outside of even Israel’s unilaterally expanded borders of annexed East Jerusalem. Two efforts by the Netanyahu government to make Ma’ale Adumim a part of Jerusalem were opposed not only by the international community. They were also rejected by Israelis as well. For Israel’s BK partner to open a restaurant in this or any West Bank settlement amounted to a unilateral expansion of Israel’s economic control into the West Bank. If uncontested, this expansion, would, in effect, predetermine the status of Ma’ale Adumim in Israel’s favor and negatively impact economic opportunities for prospective Palestinian businessmen. Because we supported the peace process, we opposed this unilateral expansion.

Burger King, pressured by Arabs who either worked with or had an interest in the company, took the situation quite seriously. Their investigation of the matter led the corporation to take a politically risky, yet responsible, step.

On August 26, BK announced that it had “cancelled the right” of its independent Israeli franchisee to “operate a Burger King food court counter in Ma’ale Adumim in the West Bank. Burger King has asked its franchisee to remove the Burger King brand from the site immediately.”

In a lengthy public release issued by the company, BK explained its decision.

    Burger King Corporation said the reasons for this action are a breach of its franchise contract and misrepresentation. Specifically [the Israeli franchise] falsely informed Burger King that the food court would be located in Israel. It had been clearly understood between the two companies that Burger King would not approve [the Israeli franchise] opening restaurants in the West Bank at this sensitive time in the peace process.

    Burger King has had extensive discussions and consultations over the last several weeks with [the Israeli franchise]. [The Israeli franchise’s] major shareholder has twice assured Burger King that he had undertaken to close the food counter; but the food counter remains open.

    The cancellation of [the Israeli franchisee’s] right to operate the site, as a Burger King franchise will not force the closure of the food counter. But, it will end any involvement of the Burger King brand in its operation at this time.

    Burger King has made this decision purely on a commercial basis and in the best interests 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.

More pointedly, a BK spokesperson told the press, “They lied to us, and they misrepresented the facts. We trusted the franchisee to provide us with an accurate representation of the site. If we had known where it was located, we would never have approved the site.”

In one press account, BK noted that it had told its Israeli partner, “more than a year ago that the company wouldn’t support a restaurant in the West Bank while the peace negotiations were still under way…. ‘They clearly knew how we felt.’”

No doubt some extreme pro-Israel groups will now protest this move. Some groups have already indicated that they will call for an international boycott of BK. Others have suggested that they may seek congressional action against the company! BK, of course, must be concerned with the possible negative consequences of its responsible corporate decision.

But of equal concern to the company were the rather foolish and damaging boasts of some American Muslim and Arab American groups who crowed of their success in forcing BK to make this change. One group went so far as to threaten that they would continue to monitor Burger King until all of its signs were taken down in Ma’ale Adumim. Another group threatened similar actions against other targets.

While the efforts of the Arab American and American Muslims were important in calling attention to the problem, it would be wise for all involved not to overreach and become engaged in hollow boasts.

Too much gloating is irresponsible and can only provoke a negative response and prolong a very problematic confrontation.

Burger King acted responsibility and professionally. It is to be commended for its swift effort to correct a situation that compromised not only its corporate integrity but the Middle East peace process as well.

The appropriate response for both Arabs and Israelis should be to use BK’s action as an example.

For the peace process to succeed, it must be based on equal rights, legality and justice. If it is, both sides will benefit. Already, for example, BK’s presence in both Israel and the Arab world points to one of early positive byproducts of the peace process. But the benefits of peace must extend to the Palestinians as well. Israelis who hold franchise agreements with U.S. and other multinational corporations cannot insist that these agreements give them control over the West Bank and Gaza. For the peace process to succeed, the Palestinians must achieve not only political sovereignty, but also economic sovereignty. If the West Bank and Gaza remain economic dependencies, subordinated to Israeli interests, then peace will remain a distant dream.

BK has taken a positive step. It should now proceed to find Palestinian partners. When Palestinians can freely import and export and open franchises of their own, then real Palestinian independence will be possible and a key component of peace will be in place.

By removing one small obstacle from the path to such a peace, BK has helped to show the way. No gloating, no threats, no provocations–just thanks are in order.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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