Biggest Dutch pension fund dumps Israeli banks

Israel’s biggest banks are heavily involved in financing Israel’s construction of colonies in the occupied West Bank, a war crime (Ahmad Al-Bazz - ActiveStills)

Adri Nieuwhof

The Electronic Intifada  /  July 6, 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 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.

PFZW backtracks

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.

Adri Nieuwhof is a human rights advocate based in the Netherlands and former anti-apartheid activist at the Holland Committee on Southern Africa