Dumping West Bank store puts Burger King in a pickle

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NEW YORK — Have it whose way?

When the Burger King Corp. pulled its name from a franchise in the West Bank settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim on Thursday of last week, it claimed the reason was breach of contract.

But some Jewish leaders — as well as Arab-American and Muslim-American groups — believe the Miami-based burger chain made the decision under heat from a threatened worldwide boycott.

The conflict may foreshadow an era in which Arab and Muslim groups in America represent a significant lobbying force on the Middle East.

Burger King argues that its move was done due to a "technical reason," said Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella group.

But, he added, "that's not how it will be perceived."

The decision to pull the Burger King brand from the Israeli franchise came two days after the Arab League announced it would vote this month on whether to declare a boycott against the fast-food company.

Meshulam Riklis, the Israeli-born franchise owner, has declared in the meantime that he will keep the restaurant open and continue to sell trademarked Burger King menu items.

In their defense, Burger King officials said in a statement that they canceled the right of Riklis' company, Rikamor Ltd., to use the Burger King brand in Ma'aleh Adumim because Rikamor had falsely stated that the outlet would be located in a food court within Israel.

"It had been clearly understood between the two companies that Burger King would not approve Rikamor opening restaurants in the West Bank at this sensitive time in the peace process," the statement said.

Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America, said Burger King is taking a "pro-Arab position."

"They are in effect saying that the Jews of Ma'aleh Adumim should have no American businesses to service them, so in a sense they are cooperating with Arabs' desire to freeze out Jews who live in Judea and Samaria."

According to Burger King, Rikamor officials twice said that they would close the franchise, but did not follow through.

The controversy points to the developing political savvy and organization of Arab American and Muslim American groups.

A coalition of Muslim organizations — led by the 5-month-old group, American Muslims for Jerusalem, and joined by the American Muslim Council and the Arab American Institute, among a dozen others — waged a public relations campaign last month against Burger King, using e-mail as well as street demonstrations.

The nondenominational American Friends Service Committee independently launched a two-day e-mail campaign against the franchise, which it asserts reached 20,000 people.

In a similar situation last year, Arab-American groups protested against Ben & Jerry's because its Israeli franchise had purchased mineral water from an Israeli supplier in the Golan Heights.

The Israeli licensee ended up canceling its contract with the water company, Mei Eden.

Hit with criticism by American Jewish groups, Ben & Jerry's denied that it was acquiescing to Arab groups who were calling for a boycott.

In the Burger King flare-up, the coalition of Muslim groups held an Aug. 5 news conference at which they called for a global boycott. The announcement was covered in the major Arab-language media and led to e-mail campaigns and a one-day demonstration at restaurants in the United States.

Compared to 20 or even 10 years ago, today the Arab-American community is "an organized constituency" that is "self-identified and has an agenda and has an awareness of its ability to act" on issues of concern, "domestic and international, local and national," said James Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute.

"People are feeling very good about what the community is able to do," he said.

On Tuesday of last week, the Arab League announced that it would take up the issue of the Israeli franchise in the West Bank at its Sept. 12-13 conference in Cairo.

In addition to 46 outlets in Israel, Burger King has restaurants in several countries with Arab and Muslim majorities, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Malaysia.

In its statement, Burger King said it "made this decision purely on a commercial basis and in the best interests of thousands of people who depend on the Burger King reputation for their livelihood."

The statement goes on to say that "Burger King has no interest in taking sides in the Arab-Israeli peace process, except to welcome its early and mutually acceptable outcome."

Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said that because Burger King's decision comes after the Arab League's talk of a boycott, it represents a "submission to the boycott."

A statement by Hoenlein and Presidents Conference chairman, Ronald Lauder, said Ma'aleh Adumim is part of "Greater Jerusalem" and its industrial park employs 1,000 Palestinians.

At least one long-time observer of the Middle East cautioned against drawing comparisons to the long-time Arab boycott on Israeli industry.

"We should keep in mind that this is a boycott of a business on the West Bank, not in Israel itself," said M.J. Rosenberg, director of policy at the Israel Policy Forum, a group founded to support the Oslo peace process.

"So therefore, it's absurd to liken this to the Arab boycott of pre-1994, which was directed against Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Israel itself — rather than beyond the Green Line," Rosenberg said.

"We know Arabs and Arab-Americans oppose the occupation of the West Bank; there's nothing new in that. That's what this is about."