It was the closest vote of the 2012 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). By the narrow margin of 333-331, commissioners turned aside a proposal to divest PCUSA holdings in three companies that sell non-lethal products to the Israeli military. Instead the commissioners chose an approach that emphasized “active investment” to build up the Palestinian economy.
Now the source of that 2012 divestment proposal, the PCUSA Committee on Mission Responsibility through Investment (MRTI), is bringing an almost identical measure back to the 2014 General Assembly. At least seven presbytery overtures, plus another denominational agency’s resolution, will also press the attack against Israel. Only one overture advocates a more reconciling approach that refrains from harsh words and punitive actions targeted against the Jewish state.
MRTI this year, as in 2012, recommends that “Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions be placed on the General Assembly Divestment List until such time as they have ceased profiting from non-peaceful pursuits in Israel-Palestine.” These “non-peaceful pursuits” involve the sale of equipment that the Israeli military uses in maintaining its presence in the Palestinian-populated West Bank.
Caterpillar “sells heavy equipment used in the Occupied Palestinian Territories for the construction of illegal Israeli settlements, roads solely used by illegal Israeli settlers, and the construction of the Separation Barrier extending across the 1967 ‘Green Line’ into East Jerusalem and the West Bank,” according to MRTI. Caterpillar equipment is also used to demolish Palestinian buildings that Israel believes to be illegal or implicated in terrorism.
MRTI reports that Hewlett-Packard “sells hardware to the Israeli Navy, and as a contractor manages all Information Technology.” Such technology is used in “the ongoing naval blockade of the Gaza Strip,” as Israeli ships interdict vessels suspected of bringing arms to the Islamist Hamas movement that rules Gaza. Hewlett-Packard also supplies biometric identification systems that are used at Israeli security checkpoints inside the West Bank.
Motorola Solutions “provided ruggedized cell phones” and “an integrated communications system” to the Israeli army, according to MRTI. The company also sells “wide-area surveillance systems” to protect Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
MRTI’s report to the General Assembly recounts a decade of “corporate engagement” with the three companies. In letters and meetings and through shareholder resolutions, the PCUSA committee has repeatedly urged the three to stop selling to the Israeli military.
Companies can’t control customers
Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions have consistently brushed aside these church entreaties. In communications with MRTI, they have noted that they sell their products to governments and militaries around the world, and they cannot control how customers use those products. The three companies point out that Israel is a U.S. ally eligible to purchase military-related supplies from U.S. companies. The same equipment that is used to patrol the West Bank is also used to guard against terrorist incursions across the pre-1967 borders of Israel. It would not be possible for the companies to decree that their bulldozers, cell phones and biometric scanners could be used in certain settings but not in others.
Since the 2012 General Assembly, MRTI has made attempts to renew conversations with the companies; however, it has seen no indication that any of them might yield to its demands. The committee is asking 2014 commissioners to conclude that “[t]his process of engagement has, in the case of three companies, produced no substantive change and, in the judgment of this assembly, is likely not to do so in the future.” Therefore, it is again recommending divestment as “the final step … where engagement is not resulting in any change.”
Why Israel alone?
MRTI is not proposing divestment from companies that supply military equipment to other U.S. allies such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. Human rights groups generally assess those other governments as far more repressive than Israel’s. (Compare Freedom House ratings here.) Yet MRTI has pursued its “corporate engagement” and divestment strategy solely against companies that sell to the Jewish state.
Is this targeting of Israel—and Israel alone—fair? Is it conducive to Middle East peacemaking? The 2012 General Assembly, by the slenderest majority, answered “no.” The 2014 commissioners will have an opportunity to reconsider the question.