PGGM of the Netherlands, one of the 20 largest pension asset managers globally, said Wednesday it has divested from five Israeli banks because they are involved in financing the construction of Jewish settlements in occupied territories.
In financial terms the move is not that significant, given that PGGM had only several tens of millions invested in the banks out of the more than $170 billion in assets it manages. Yet it is the latest in a string of rebuffs to hit Israel over its settlement policies.
PGGM spokesman Wout Dekker confirmed the move first reported by the Haaretz newspaper. He said the decision followed years of discussions with the banks.
PGGM said it considers the settlements unethical due to the International Court of Justice’s 2004 advisory opinion that found they were an illegal violation of Palestinian rights. That sentiment, rejected by Israel, is shared by most of the international community.
“In line with our policy of responsible investment, we sought a dialogue with the banks,” PGGM said. “However, from those talks it emerged that the banks have little to no room to end their involvement in the financing of settlements in the occupied territories, given Israeli national law and the everyday reality in which they operate.”
Some 550,000 Israelis now live in settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, captured by Israel in 1967 along with the Gaza Strip. The 2.5 million Palestinians living in occupied territories want a state in those lands and say Israel’s settlement building program jeopardizes peace talks and pre-empts their outcome.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor slammed PGGM for the move.
“Apparently there is no limit to the self-righteousness of those who took this decision,” he said. “Abusing legal pretenses can only backfire.”
The banks affected by the decision were identified as Bank Hapoalim, Bank Leumi, First International Bank of Israel, Israel Discount Bank and Mizrahi Tefahot Bank.
The Union of Israeli Banks, a trade association representing the five banks, declined to comment on the move.
PGGM’s policy paper says it excludes investing in bodies involved in “violations of fundamental human rights and labor rights.” But according to a document released by the company in 2013, PGGM investments abroad include two Chinese banks –- Bank of China and China Construction Bank — with offices and activities in Tibet, which is widely seen internationally as land occupied by China. PGGM also invests in China Petroleum & Chemical Corporation, or Sinopec, which is exploring for oil in Tibet.
Palmor said PGGM’s divestment indicated a double standard. Decision-makers at PGGM, he said, were “discombobulated by the rising anti-Israel discourse in Holland, and resorted to an excess of self-righteousness. This sanctimonious moralism comes across as all the more awkward as it is now clear that PGGM applies a different standard in other areas of the world.”
Palmor added that the “double standard probably derives from the assessment of the reaction” because, whereas Israel responds to criticism with statements, “others reply by heavy-handed economic sanctions.”
PGGM’s international investments also include the Malaysian palm oil producer Sime Darby, which last year paid a million dollars in reparations to villagers in Liberia amid accusations that the firm had violated their human rights and confiscated their property.
PGGM had a marginal investment of several dozen millions of dollars in Israeli banks out of billions it invests all over the world, according to the NRC Handelsblad daily.
Wilbrink declined to answer JTA questions on the scope of his company’s investments in Chinese firms active in Tibet, explaining the figures were confidential. Any further information about PGGM’s move, he said, was in its statement.
Numerous pension funds in Scandinavia and the Netherlands have already divested in Israeli defense contractor Elbit Systems over concerns about its activities in the occupied territories.
Up until last month, the European Union had been considering measures to clearly label products made in the settlements, a move that could harm sales. But discussions on labeling have been put on hold for now because Europe is working closely with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to support ongoing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that are supposed to conclude in April.
Last month, the American Studies Association, a 3,800-member group of American scholars, endorsed a boycott of Israeli universities.
Also in December, Vitens, the largest supplier of drinking water in the Netherlands, decided to end cooperation on projects with Israel’s national water carrier Mekorot over its operations in West Bank settlements.