Corporate America and corporate boardrooms across the globe
wield enormous political influence. It may in fact be argued that in
today's material world corporate interests are the primary motivating
factors for political action. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that
power, for a multitude of reasons, has been unjustly mobilized to
help sustain 35 years of an illegal Israeli military and economic
domination of the Palestinian people.
In light of this and the deteriorating situation in the Middle East the
time has come for corporate boardrooms of companies involved in
that region to reassess their role, even if that role has been to
remain silent for all these years. The corporate world must channel
its influence to end the Israeli occupation. The Israeli-Palestinian
conflict has reached a dangerous point that has the potential to
disrupt business activity, especially U.S. business interests
throughout the Middle East. Long-term U.S. national strategic
interests in the region are also at risk, namely the cost and
uninterrupted flow of oil. Millions of U.S. corporate and citizen tax
dollars spent on building the Palestinian economy were lost in this
latest Israeli offensive against the Palestinian civil and national
infrastructure. It would be negligent for corporate America to remain
silent while its government recommits yet more tax dollars to the
region without addressing the source of the conflict. Ending Israeli
occupation is the only solution that will put the region back on track.
While earning my MBA degree at Tel Aviv and Northwestern
Universities, Professor of Leadership and Ethics, David Messick,
assigned two readings to the class. One, by Milton Friedman,
argued that corporate executives do not have a social responsibility
but they must conform to the "basic rules of the society, both those
embodied in law and those embodied in ethical custom." The
second reading by Kenneth Goodpaster argued that corporate
managers had a "dual role" in their capacities: to make decisions
that were best for their corporations and to have an eye focused on
how their business decisions affected the environment external to
their firms. Both of these writers, although presenting conflicting
viewpoints, are good reference points for the argument that
corporations around the world have a role to play to help end Israeli
occupation. Whether one solely relies on taking decisions that are
legal or instead has a greater awareness of his or her corporate
social responsibility, the result is the same - be aware how your
actions may support the oppression of others.
For corporate executives less inclined to be socially responsible,
U.S. laws that govern U.S. foreign trade must be the guiding light.
There exist a number of laws that U.S. corporations are legally
bound by, such as the U.S. Foreign Assistance and Arms Export
Control Acts. United States law stipulates, inter alia, that any
defense articles and defense services to any country shall be
furnished "solely for internal security, [or] for legitimate self-defense"
(22U.S.C. 2302 and 2754). Israel's excessive and disproportionate
use of force to suppress the Palestinian people and its recent
offensive against Palestinian cities with U.S.-supplied weaponry
clearly exceeds the bounds of what could be considered legitimate
self-defense and therefore is in violation of U.S. law. Corporations
would be ill advised to continue ignoring this fact in the hope that
those persons that are being damaged by their business decisions
will not take legal action in the future. Legal ghosts have haunted
many firms, especially in Europe, many years after their neglect of
humanitarian law. Pro-active decision-making today that aligns a
firm squarely against Israeli occupation will spare it the potential
agony of facing criminal charges in the future.
Furthermore, according to U.S. law, "no security assistance may be
provided to any country the government of which engages in a
consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized
human rights" (22U.S.C. 2304). The U.S. State Department has
repeatedly documented in its annual reports that Israel engages in
"torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment of punishment,
prolonged detention without charges and trial, causing the
disappearance of persons by the abduction and clandestine
detention of those persons, and other flagrant denials of the right to
life, liberty, or the security of people." The time is long overdue for
corporate America to take note and act accordingly.
Additionally, there is a multitude of U.S. policies and government
decisions that should ethically guide corporations in this conflict. For
instance, consider the illegal Israeli settlements that continue to be
built across Palestinian lands in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East
Jerusalem. Successive U.S. administrations have stated that these
settlements are either, "illegal", "obstacles to peace", "unhelpful",
"provocative" or "impediments" to peace. The time has come for
corporate executives from firms like Caterpillar, whose equipment is
used in building these settlements, to understand the negative
contributions they make to Middle East peace by not heeding their
own government's warnings over many years. These negative
contributions are above and beyond their potential violation of U.S.
law. The separation of the executive, legislative and judicial
branches of government, coupled with short-term goals of powerful
interest groups, may complicate or delay legal action against those
corporations that support Israeli occupation, but one should not be
fooled into thinking that such a delay will last forever.
U.S. military-related corporations support Israeli occupation by way
of an institutionalized mechanism provided for by Congress.
Congress has stipulated that seventy-five percent of U.S. foreign
military aid to Israel, which amounts to over $2 billion annually, must
be spent buying U.S. products and services. Firms like Lockheed,
Boeing, United Technologies, Raytheon, ExxonMobil, Northrop,
Pgsus, General Dynamics and Oshkosh among others are directly
contributing to the tools that Israel uses to violate international and
humanitarian law. The following are some specific cases:
* U.S. weapons manufacture Lockheed Martin Aeronautics
Company, which provides the fighter jets that have been used by
Israel to bomb Palestinian cities that have been under military
closure for 18 months, proudly announced on September 5, 2001
from Fort Worth, Texas that Israel had decided to purchase 52 more
Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter jets. The contract value was reported
approximately $1.3 billion for only the aircraft.
* Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation, a subsidiary of United Technologies
Corporation, sells Israel U.S. armaments used to destroy Palestinian
cities and perform political assassinations of Palestinian civilians
from the sky. "Our company's relationship of more than 40 years
with Israel is a source of pride," said Sikorsky President Dean
Borgman in a February 1, 2001 press release while announcing his
firm was awarded a $211.8 million contract for 24 additional Black
Hawk helicopters to serve the Israeli Air Force.
* Other less visible military suppliers are those like Federal
Laboratories in Saltsburg Pennsylvania, which provides CS tear gas
to the Israeli military. During the first Palestinian Intifada (Uprising)
in 1988, Federal Laboratories witnessed civil disobedience actions at
their plant gate in Saltsburg and a lawsuit in U.S. courts after Israel
misused their lethal tear gas by firing it into closed areas that
resulted in the killing of many Palestinians. Federal Laboratories
stopped exporting the gas for six months in 1988 and sent a fact-
finding team to Israel before resuming sales.
Corporate America's support of Israeli occupation is not confined to
military equipment suppliers. In fall 1999, Burger King opened a
franchise restaurant in an illegal Israeli settlement in the West Bank,
only to be forced by its customers to close down the store to avoid a
This month alone three U.S. firms have been lured into collaboration
with Israel's illegal occupation. This week, Fifth Third Bank
Northeastern Ohio purchased $500,000 worth of bonds from Israel.
Robert King, president and chief executive of the Cleveland affiliate
of Fifth Third Bancorp in Cincinnati proudly stated in a press release
saying that, "This year is the state of Israel's 50th anniversary, and
now more than ever, it is poised to continue its growth as an
industrial world leader." No mention was made by Mr. King that
such growth comes at the cost of systematic gross violations of
human rights by Israel. I suspect a closer look at these Israeli bonds
will find that they are part of the portfolio of hundreds of public and
private pension funds across America. Pension fund managers and
their beneficiaries can take an active part in ending Israeli
occupation by immediately divesting their portfolios of these bonds.
And earlier this month, Microsoft Israel put company executives in
Redmond, Seattle in an awkward position when they sponsored two
large billboards on a main Israeli highway saluting Israel's armed
forces at the same time the Israeli military was indiscriminately
bombing the Jenin refugee camp into what is rapidly amounting to
war crimes. Only days after a grassroots letter writing campaign,
partly led by the Israeli peace group Gush-Shalom, Microsoft
executives announced that Microsoft Israel had acted alone and was
instructed to take down the billboards, which they promptly did.
Israel is the largest research and development site for Microsoft
outside of the U.S. Bill Gates would serve world peace well by
continuing his involvement and requesting Israel to end the
occupation in order to qualify for continued commercial
opportunities. The same can be said for Intel Corporation, which has
the largest production facilities outside of the U.S. located in Israel.
Divesting in countries that are in blatant violation of international and
humanitarian law is not new. The divestment campaign that
targeted apartheid in South Africa is a case in point. When South
African business leaders saw that apartheid was jeopardizing their
own business interests they played an important role in convincing
their government to fall in line with international law, which led to the
ending of apartheid. One might argue that no grassroots commercial
divestment in Israel can be large enough to convince the Israeli
government to change paths. This is debatable. However, it is clear
that such a campaign would send the right signals that the time has
come for Israel to join the world community by ending its oppression
of Palestinians. (It is interesting to note that Israel was one of the
closet allies to the South African apartheid government.)
Corporate responsibility is difficult to gauge. Most serious business
decisions take place behind closed doors, outside of public view. As
executives struggle to climb the corporate ladder they are loathe to
offer any comments that may "rock the boat" with regard to Israel.
Nevertheless, standing on the right side of history with regard to the
occupation is what will set apart the leaders in corporate America.
The separation of personal convictions from corporate policy is a
must and is always in the best interest of the firm. Otherwise, an ill-
founded personal conviction may unnecessarily put the corporation
on the front lines of a future legal battle that it does not desire.
Today many European firms are learning this lesson the hard way
after it was proved they supported discrimination and atrocities
against Jews in Europe during WWII. To this date, many are still
paying the price both morally and financially.
Israel has been able to sustain its illegal occupation largely for two
reasons. First, the U.S. government, shackled by the special
interest groups such as the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, has continuously
provided Israel with unfaltering political, economic and diplomatic
cover. Even though this is the case, U.S. administrations have
systematically provided the world with signals (SOS's if I may) that
wrong is being done. This can be seen in the repeated statements
regarding Israeli settlements and in the State Department's Country
Reports on Human Rights Practices. The U.S. government needs
corporate America's help to realign its policy in the Israeli-
Palestinian conflict. After all these years, corporate America should
be hearing these signals and acting accordingly.
Secondly, and equally important, the Palestinians have failed so far
to translate their struggle into a sustainable grassroots strategy that
seriously engages the millions around the world who are in support
of their cause. Grassroots activism played a significant role in the
success of the South African movement against apartheid and
creating such a comprehensive grassroots campaign will remain a
burden that the Palestinian leadership must carry. It is not enough
to have a just cause; you must also have a realistic strategy and
campaigns that serve that strategy. Given the unrelenting Israeli
campaign against Palestinians, we cannot let a lack of such a
strategy be an excuse for U.S. companies to continue breaking U.S.
law or for international venues to be intimidated to delay overdue
Corporate boardrooms in America and around the world are
positioned to contribute to ending Israel's occupation. Not only is it
part of their moral and legal obligation to do so, in the end it will
make good business sense.
Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American businessman living in the
besieged Palestinian City of Al-Bireh/Ramallah in the West Bank
and can be reached at email@example.com
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