Quartet ex-envoy’s investment helps Israel greenwash settlements

6 May 2010

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Better Place’s Tel Aviv headquarters.

Former World Bank president and Middle East Quartet envoy James D. Wolfensohn is an investor in an Israeli company that is developing transport infrastructure for Jewish-only settlements built in the occupied West Bank in violation of international law, an investigation by The Electronic Intifada reveals.

Wolfensohn provided some of the start-up capital for Better Place, a company founded by Israeli entrepreneur Shai Agassi. The company owns and operates Better Place Israel (BPI), a division which is establishing a system of charging stations for electric vehicles throughout Israel and for Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank.

The company has been a poster child for efforts to greenwash Israel – presenting it as a haven for environmental technologies – yet it has close ties to Israel’s military and political establishments and its principal officers express an explicitly anti-Muslim and anti-Arab agenda.

BPI’s chief executive officer is former general Moshe Kaplinsky, who commanded Israeli occupation forces in the West Bank during the second Palestinian intifada, a period of massive, well-documented violations of Palestinian human rights. Kaplinsky was also deputy chief of staff of Israel’s army during its 2006 war on Lebanon when Amnesty International and other human rights groups charged that Israel committed numerous war crimes including widespread use of cluster bombs in residential areas.

Better Place’s goal is to bring fully-electric vehicles and the infrastructure to support them to the mass market – starting with Israel. It also has pilot projects as far afield as Denmark, Canada, California, Australia and Japan.

Specially-built electric cars, due to be available to the public in Israel next year, are manufactured by French-Japanese conglomerate Renault-Nissan under an agreement with Better Place. Better Place had also recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Chinese car manufacturer Chery to jointly develop electric car technology for the Chinese market.

“What we do to make it convenient is we set [a] massive number of charge spots across an entire country or entire region,” Agassi explained to the BBC World Service’s One Planet program in January 2009. “And we set up battery exchange systems so that wherever you drive you don’t need to sit and wait for your battery to charge, you can just swap it and keep on going.”

Building infrastructure in the occupied West Bank

Before BPI sells its first car in Israel it is establishing a network of thousands of charging spots on the country’s entire road system including settler roads and in settlements in the West Bank.

One of the largest investors in BPI is billionaire Idan Ofer, owner of Dor-Alon energy group, Israel’s largest oil refiner. Dor-Alon has signed an agreement to install Better Place charging and battery exchange spots throughout its network of gas stations.

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An example of a charging station like the ones being established throughout the occupied West Bank.

Israel’s Hebrew-language financial publication Globes reported on 3 February that “According to estimates, the deployment [of charging stations] will stress the more extensive and popular refueling locations of Dor-Alon, which enjoys a dominance on primary transportation routes, such as its four stations on the Cross Israel road (Highway 6) and the stations on Highway 443 and the Coastal Highway.”

Highway 443, significantly, is a road used by thousands of Israeli commuters daily. Half of the road’s approximately 30-kilometer length runs through the occupied West Bank. Israel has banned Palestinians whose land and villages the road traverses from accessing it, reserving it effectively for Jews only. Prior to Israel’s seizure of the road, it had been a main artery for Palestinian traffic south of Ramallah (“Route 443 – West Bank road for Israelis only,” B’Tselem).

The Electronic Intifada (EI) independently confirmed BPI’s expansion into the West Bank when it sent an undercover reporter to visit the company’s headquarters situated in a massive renovated fuel storage tank in northern Tel Aviv.

During the tour, the EI reporter, along with other visitors, was shown an IMAX-style video presentation which explained that each customer who buys a BPI electric vehicle will also have a charging spot installed at their home – a short post with an outlet that connects to the car via a nozzle-type input, and wirelessly links to the BPI communications network.

When the EI reporter asked a BPI spokesperson if these charging stations could be installed inside settlements in the West Bank, the spokesperson said that they would be installed “anywhere … that you want to live.” On a map shown during the video presentation, charging stations were shown in areas in the Jordan Valley and along major routes going east from Jerusalem – indicating that BPI has already installed charging stations inside the West Bank, and plans to install many more.

Wolfensohn an early booster of Better Place

James Wolfensohn’s investment firm, Wolfensohn & Co., is listed on BPI’s website along with Australia-based firm Macquarie Capital and US-based investment bank Morgan Stanley, among others as investors. Macquarie invests in and operates transport infrastructure all over the world, including the Chicago Skyway toll bridge, the Indiana Toll Road and the M6 Toll motorway in the UK.

Contacted by EI, Wolfensohn & Co. declined to disclose the size of its stake or provide any other comment for this story. Yet as one of the first investors it may have been influential in helping BPI attract additional capital.

BPI recently secured a $350 million equity investment from international bank HSBC, expanding the company’s estimated worth to $1.25 billion.

“Israel is a perfect test tube” for the electric car, Wolfensohn was quoted as saying in the February 2008 issue of Israel High-Tech & Investment Report. “It needs to be tested, and [BPI founder Shai] Agassi is to be commended for testing it and the Israeli government for trying it out.”

While operating as a private company – with its head office nominally in California – Better Place has been dependent on Israeli government support from the start. Initially, Agassi wrote a concept paper for the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders initiative. Agassi shopped it to various world leaders but found no takers, he told the BBC’s One Planet. “Then President [Shimon] Peres of Israel picked up on it,” Agassi recalled. “But the challenge to me was don’t ask us to do it. If you think it’s such a great business, go do it yourself. And that’s how it became a company instead of a government agency.” More recently Agassi told CNN, “I would not be doing this today were it not for [Peres]” (“Shai Agassi: One man’s mission to turn all cars electric,” CNN, 19 April 2010).

Wolfensohn’s investment in and personal endorsement of an Israeli company that is helping to build and solidify the infrastructure of occupation is surprising. Until 2006, Wolfensohn served as envoy for the Quartet, the ad hoc, self-appointed committee of representatives of the United States, the European Union, Russia and the UN Secretary-General that has monopolized the so-called “peace process.” Wolfensohn was tasked with assisting Palestinian economic development in the Gaza Strip after Israel removed its settlers in 2005 and moved its occupation forces from the interior to the perimeter of the besieged territory that imprisons 1.5 million Palestinians, mostly refugees.

Wolfensohn resigned in frustration after the Quartet decided to boycott, and freeze aid to, the Palestinian Authority after Hamas won the January 2006 election. “It would surprise me if one could win by getting all the kids out of school or starving the Palestinians,” Wolfensohn said in a parting shot aimed at Israeli and Quartet policies (“West ‘has to prevent collapse’ of Palestinian Authority,” Financial Times, 3 May 2006).

Wolfensohn had previously been highly critical of severe movement restrictions on Palestinians between and within the occupied territories – such as those along Highway 443 – that have devastated the Palestinian economy. Wolfensohn was succeeded as Quartet envoy by Tony Blair.

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Former Israeli army general Moshe Kaplinsky in Better Place’s promotional video.

Islamophobia under the guise of environmentalism

BPI’s promotional video claimed that the funding of “extreme and unstable regimes … that fund organizations not positive for humanity” is one of the major reasons the firm is interested in getting Israelis out of their gas-guzzling cars and into fully-electric vehicles. Both Israeli President Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are shown extolling the virtues of BPI’s mission, with Netanyahu commenting that this is a part of a “changing world order … shaking off our dependence on oil.”

The canard that proceeds from the gasoline that motorists around the world pump into their cars directly funds terrorism has become popular with liberal environmentalists in recent years. While implicitly racist toward Arabs and Muslims, BPI has made such prejudiced and inflammatory claims an explicit part of its business model.

CEO Moshe Kaplinsky told the BBC’s One Planet, “I was a general in the IDF [Israeli army] and I understand where the money from the oil is going and what it cause to our society in the Western side of the globe [sic].”

When asked why he was an early booster of Better Place, Israeli President Peres told Wired magazine, “I thought that the greatest problem of our time was oil. Oil on one hand is polluting the land, and on the other hand it’s financing terror” (“Drive: Shai Agassi’s Audacious Plan to Put Electric Cars on the Road,” 18 August 2008).

Rebranding Israel

Following the 11 September 2001 attacks in the US, Israeli companies selling “security” and “anti-terrorist” expertise became an engine of the country’s exports. In the age of US President Barack Obama, and concern about climate change, there has been a concerted effort to soften Israel’s image, especially in the wake of the UN-commissioned Goldstone report into Israeli war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Gaza Strip.

Better Place has become a flagship for this strategy – the Reut Institute’s Gidi Grinstein, for example, used images of the Better Place logo in his notorious powerpoint presentation at the Herzliya conference, on efforts to rebrand Israel as Earth-friendly while urging its intelligence agencies to “sabotage” and “attack” the growing global Palestine solidarity movement.

The success of Better Place in raising money from Wolfensohn & Co. and other international firms, as well as the positive publicity the company has received, serve as warnings that Palestinians and the growing global boycott, divestment and sanctions movement must be ever more vigilant against Israel’s efforts to disguise its illegal and brutal colonization and apartheid behind a green mask.

*Photos by The Electronic Intifada.

Ali Abunimah is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse.*