Rights and Accountability 6 July 2020
Dutch pension fund ABP announced last month that it has stopped investing in two Israeli banks involved in Israel’s violent colonization of the occupied West Bank.
ABP is the biggest pension fund in the Netherlands, and one of the world’s largest, with about $500 billion in assets.
It says it wants its investments to “contribute to a sustainable world.”
In areas where there is an increased risk of human rights violations, like the West Bank, ABP requires companies it invests in to have in place a human rights policy.
Not only do Israel’s Bank Hapoalim and Bank Leumi have no such policy, but both are heavily involved in building settlements on occupied Palestinian land.
All of Israel’s settlement construction in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, as well as in Syria’s Golan Heights, is a war crime.
ABP spokesperson Jos van Dijk confirmed the divestment from the two banks in a phone call with The Electronic Intifada.
For over a decade, many organizations and thousands of individuals have expressed their concerns over ABP’s investments in settlement profiteers.
In 2014, former South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote to ABP’s board calling for divestment from the Israeli banks.
Investing in Israeli institutions that lend to repressive and illegal projects “helps perpetuate the cycle of violence,” he argued.
However, the Israeli banks do not appear on ABP’s exclusions list, van Dijk said, because only firms involved in tobacco production, nuclear arms and cluster weapons are listed.
Named on the exclusion list are Israeli arms firms Aryt Industries, Ashot Ashkelon and Elbit Systems.
Investing in occupation
In 2016, ABP held shares worth $100 million in Bank Hapoalim and Bank Leumi, as well as $10 million in shares of Mizrahi Tefahot, another Israeli institution that finances settlements, according to research organization Danwatch.
In February, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released a long-awaited database of companies involved in Israel’s illegal settlements.
It includes nine Israeli banks and many international brands.
ABP holds shares in several companies listed in the UN database including train maker Alstom, travel firms Booking.com and Tripadvisor, real estate company Re/Max, US food giant General Mills and electronics firm Motorola.
ABP should also divest from these companies because they aid and help sustain Israel’s illegal settlements.
Six years ago, the second largest pension fund in the Netherlands PFZW – formerly known as PGGM – excluded five Israeli banks for their role in financing settlements.
Bank Hapoalim, Bank Leumi, First International Bank of Israel, Israel Discount Bank and Mizrahi Tefahot Bank were excluded from the fund’s investment portfolio.
“We are concerned that the occupation of the West Bank harms the human rights of Palestinians under international law,” PFZW director Peter Borgdorff told Dutch daily Trouw in 2014.
“We do not want to make money from companies that further strengthen and expand the settlements.”
But last year, PFZW suddenly removed the five Israeli banks from its exclusions list.
When asked, Borgdorff said that this had to do with a reassessment of all investments.
Three Israeli banks reappeared in PFZW’s 2019 investment portfolio.
Fully aware of the role Israeli banks play in the violation of Palestinian rights, PFZW nonetheless invested more than $7 million in First International Bank of Israel, Israel Discount Bank and Mizrahi Tefahot.
PFZW spokesperson Ellen Habermehl assured The Electronic Intifada that the pension fund still applies its policy of sustainable and responsible investment.
She added that the OECD guidelines on responsible business conduct for multinational enterprises serve as an important benchmark.
Those guidelines say that companies should “respect human rights, which means they should avoid infringing on the human rights of others and should address adverse human rights impacts with which they are involved.”
Today, Habermehl said, PFZW uses the services of dataprovider Sustainalytics, which screens companies for ethical and sustainable conduct.
Since Sustainalytics provides proprietary information to subscribers, it is currently unclear what its recommendations are regarding companies that violate Palestinian rights.
This is not the only area in which PFZW appears to have backtracked on ethical commitments.
In December, environmental campaigners accused PFZW of breaking a 2015 pledge to reduce its investments in fossil fuels by 30 percent over five years. Instead, according to campaign group FossielvrijNL, the pension fund actually increased its holdings by 14 percent.
Since 2014, the year PFZW excluded the five Israeli banks, Israel has intensified its settlement expansion, which goes hand in hand with increasing violations of Palestinian rights.
There can be no doubt that Israeli banks violate the OECD guidelines. Continuing to invest in them renders PFZW’s alleged concerns for human rights insincere and hollow.
Permalink Frank Dallas replied on
The ABP action shows it is perfectly possible to combine responsible management of pension funds with ethical refusal to assist injustice. This is more important than it might appear because the common excuse of the capitalists is that nothing must get in the way of the best return, and they have a legal duty to pursue it. $500 bn is no small sum of money. These huge fortunes, contributed by ordinary folk, can change the world's destiny. The problem is, we hand over our savings to these people and they are bundled away into investments we can't track. There needs to be absolute transparency. The folk whose money is invested have an absolute right to know what it being done with it. PFZW reveals the customary face of capitalism: nothing must stand in the way of money and its expansion. The dehumanisation this entails has blighted the world for hundreds of years. Money must be made to serve our moral purposes and none is greater today than justice for Palestine. As Netanyahu dithers over his macho annexation, we are granted a rare chance to exert pressure for new and real negotiations. Israel and the US always propound the lie that Palestinians will not come to the table. Whenever peace is near, Israel launches some wild attack to scupper it. The tricks are old. The world sees through them. Genuine, open negotiations for an agreement whose basis must be the 4th June borders. ABP's action is a small gesture which pushes Israel to realise time is running out. We need many more actions of this kind to bring Israel to its senses and the negotiating table. As always, for the past 40 years, the Palestinians are ready and willing.
courageous and less courageous stands
Permalink Carol Scheller replied on
Good news like this is ever so welcome ! Here's hoping that other pension funds in other countries will follow ABP's example regarding the banks. If pension funds have written commitments like PFZW, it is to be hoped that they will not hesitate to examine where their funds go in light of this article, PFZW the very first. Ms Habermehl's explanations are indeed totally unconvincing. As for Alstom, Booking.com, TripAdvisor, Motorola, General Mills, and Re/Max, they would probably not suffer much financially if ever ABP or other pension funds decided to withdraw their investments, but the symbolic warning would be beautiful ! Many thanks to careful researcher Adri !
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