The beef about Whoppers in a West Bank town

Burger King orders a franchise to close after realizing the land it's

The three most important things in real estate are location, location, location. And Burger King's newest outlet in Israel provides a bitter reminder of the old adage.

The Miami-based corporation keeps location in mind when it decides whether to add a new restaurant to its 10,500 branches. But when Rikamor Ltd. decided it would open a Burger King counter in this sprawling West Bank settlement, it neglected to tell the folks back at headquarters that the burgers would be flame-broiled in internationally disputed territory.

The big beef

What has ensued is a burger-flipping flap like Israel - and Burger King - has never seen. A month ago, a coalition of Arab and Muslim organizations called for a worldwide boycott of the chain after word spread that it had opened a branch in the West Bank - land Israel seized from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast War.

Last week, Burger King Corp. ordered the restaurant closed. That, in turn, sparked a protest from Israeli and American Jewish groups, which accuse Burger King of caving in to Arab pressure and resurrecting the once-potent Arab boycott of companies that do business with Israel. Some groups have announced that they will in turn boycott the Whopper.

Burger King, at odds to prove that it has "no interest in taking sides in the Arab-Israeli process," in the words of David Williams, president of the company's Europe, Middle East, and Africa division, says that the move had nothing to do with threats of an Arab boycott. Rather, their local franchisee gave them misleading information about where the branch would be located, and even ignored previous directives not to place a restaurant in the West Bank - whose future status is to be decided in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

A year and a half ago, Rikamor asked Burger King to approve a site in the West Bank. "Given the sensitivities, we decided we need to wait," says Robert Doughty, Burger King's vice president for public relations. This time, Rikamor applied for approval for the restaurant, listing the location simply as "Maale Adumim, Israel." A box on the application asking whether there were any circumstances that might hinder the restaurant's success, he says, was left blank.

When an employee of Burger King flew in from Dubai for a site check, a Rikamor representative drove him from the airport outside Tel Aviv straight to the desert hilltops at Maale Adumim.

"There are no signs that say 'Occupied Territories, next left,' or 'West Bank, next right,'" quips Mr. Doughty, who had just returned to corporate headquarters in Miami after a trip here.

"We were misrepresented. We were denied the right to do that evaluation, and they knew how we felt about going into the West Bank at this time," says Doughty.

That didn't seem to stop patrons from scarfing down Whoppers at the mall here on Tuesday. Rikamor has vowed to fight the decision in court, and thus far, the trays still runneth over.

"Politics and business shouldn't mix together, or business would never get anywhere," says Asher Shimon, a computer consultant who just moved his family here from Jerusalem a year ago. Eight-year-old David, elbow deep in a children's meal and a coveted Pink Panther toy that came with it, agreed with his father: "I'm bummed."

A history lesson

Nearby, a politics and history student polishing off his fries said that he didn't see any difference between this and the 46 Burger Kings inside Israel proper.

"Real peace is where people live and eat together and buy things from each other," says Harel Horowitz. "This is part of the land of Israel, and Maale Adumim is a city like any other city within the Green Line [Israel's pre-1967 borders]."

Here, in the largest of West Bank settlements, a selective reality seems to reign. Though the US , the Palestinians, and much of the rest of the international community views this place as part of a settlement plan that serves as an obstacle to a peace deal, the people who live here don't view themselves as settlers. Many who live here are moderates who came simply for inexpensive housing within a short commute to Jerusalem.

In fact, peace and economy have as much to do with what having famous fast-food joints means to Israelis than anything else. And Israelis love things American.

With Arab-Israeli reconciliation, peace enthusiasts like former Prime Minister Shimon Peres promised, would come unrivaled economic growth, regional cooperation, and foreign investment. And, among other things, those tasty Whoppers and Big Macs Israelis had only known from trips abroad.

But the price of being an American icon can be high. Burgers are the US, for much of the world - which may be why other US-based companies represented in the new Maale Adumim mall, such as Ace Hardware and a small Blockbuster booth, seem to have gone unquestioned.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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