SodaStream: Fizzy drinks brand on a mission to heal conflict-torn Middle East

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Israelis and Palestinians working together to make the latest SodaStream model (Image: GIL COHEN-MAGEN/AFP/Getty Images)

Now the company behind the fun and bubbles has become as an unlikely crusader for peace in the conflict-torn Middle East. SodaStream – whose TV ads gave us the catchy slogan Get Busy With the Fizzy – has embarked on a mission to heal the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. eeThe gadget which once graced nearly half of UK kitchens is being assembled in an Israeli manufacturing plant dubbed the “Island of Peace”.

Barely 15 miles from the bombs and rockets of Gaza, the firm’s production lines have blended a multi-ethnic workforce without so much as a ripple of unrest.

Last week, Daniel Birnbaum, SodaStream’s chief executive, gave the Daily Express a guided tour of the site where Jews and Arab work, eat, talk and joke together.

“They say that coexistence is complex and difficult,” he said. “But at SodaStream, Israelis and Palestinians live side-by-side together every day. 

“It’s high time that leaders on both sides manage the Future rather than manage the Conflict.”

His 2,000-plus workforce make a slick, modern version of the kitsch original on a site occupying 90,000 square metres of the Negev Desert outside Tel Aviv.

As well as the 120 Palestinians, they include 500 Bedouin tribesmen and women, plus 100 new immigrants from countries as diverse as Poland, Cuba and Ethiopia.

“This is a happy place,” he said. “It is like a family, side by side in harmony. You have everybody working here together smiling, getting along well.

“We discovered the recipe by accident, but when you walk in here now, it is like walking into the United Nations.”

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The latest SodaStream model (Image: NC)

He added: “Palestinians and Israelis are trained to hate each other. We are supposed to be afraid of each other. We’re living after 70 years of war, hate, terrorism, so to try to change that takes a great degree of courage. We’ve learned it pays out, it’s the right thing to do.”

Mr Birnbaum has even set up a production line inside a nearby jail, offering 160 of the best-behaved inmates a chance to earn cash as they mend their ways.

SodaStream was launched in 1903 by Guy Gilbey, the owner of a London gin distillery, to give aristocrats including the royal family something to mix with the stronger stuff.

The Queen’s grandfather was so impressed with his two fizz-makers, that in 1928, when he was Prince of Wales, he gave the company a Royal Warrant.

They were introduced to the mass market in the 1950s and within 20 years were being cranked out from a busy Peterborough factory to sit in ten million British kitchens.

Comedy legend Tommy Cooper raised a few smiles with a 1979 television ad which saw him blundering his way through a drinks-making demo before delivering his catch phrase: “Just like that”.

During a buoyant 1980s, sales peaked at £15 million, and Mrs Thatcher invited Sodastream bosses to a Downing Street reception for successful companies.

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The face of SodaStream, actress Scarlett Johansson (Image: REX)

In 1989, staff celebrated the good times with a glitzy Christmas party, at which Wham! star Andrew Ridgeley and pin-up Sam Fox leapt out of a giant cake.

But in the 1990s, the bubble burst, and SodaStream sales went flat as consumers turned to bottled water and soft drinks for their bubbles.

The company was sold to Jerusalem-based Soda Club, and the Peterborough workforce whittled away until production was moved to Germany in 2003.

Mr Birnbaum – a New York-born but Tel Aviv-raised Harvard graduate – joined the company 12 years ago from the marketing department of Nike Israel.

A former submarine commander during his national service, he lost no time in floating SodaStream on the Nasdaq stock exchange and it went public in 2010.

He then began his mission to create a harmonious workforce, hiring Jews and Palestinians for the company’s old site on disputed land on the West Bank. 

Hollywood actress Scarlett Johansson followed in the footsteps of Tommy Cooper and Sam Fox to become the company’s new brand ambassador.

But Birnbaum’s good intentions ran into trouble when political activists launched a successful boycott of his gadgets in protest of his use of seized Palestinian land.

The SodaStream chief responded by closing the West Bank site in 2014, and moving to the much bigger factory, 30 miles away.

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Company CEO Daniel Birnbaum (Image: Phil Harris / Daily Mirror)

Although his 500 Palestinians were initially laid off, he argued with their government for more than a year to secure travel permits allowing them to cross the border each day.

He then increased their numbers to 120 by offering them the same deal as his Jewish workers – which is six times what they could earn from other West Bank employers.

About half of them sleep in houses provided by the company nearby, to avoid the four-hour round trip commute through the checkpoints each day.

Now they produce 28,000 sparkling water makers daily, each carrying the slogan “produced by Jews and Arabs working side by side in peace and harmony”.

Last year, SodaStream’s reinvention took another promising twist when cola giant Pepsi snapped it up in a staggering £2.5 billion deal.

Birnbaum, 57, agreed to stay on as chief executive only if the new owners agreed to let him carry on his humanitarian approach to management.

The father-of-four celebrated by inviting all his 2000 workers – Arabs, Jews, Christians and Bedouins – to a massive VIP party to mark the end of Ramadan last month.

They were treated to a three-hour feast, and among a glitzy line-up of entertainers was the chief’s wife Bat Ella, a glamorous Israeli folk singer.

One of the guests, US Ambassador David Friedman, told the audience: “This is the real peace, not what you put on a piece of paper.

“If I could package what you have here, or more appropriately, put it in a bottle, the peace and compassion that you have here, my job would be very easy.”

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