Norway’s Ethical Leadership

Norway’s Ethical Leadership

Steps taken by Britain, Sweden, and Norway acknowledge the illegitimate nature of several Israeli policies against Palestinians — pressuring Israel to change those policies, says  Rami G. Khouri.

While US President Barack Obama has not been able to secure a total freeze of Israeli settlements, several European governments and the European Union (EU) collectively have undertaken a series of measures related to Israeli colonization policies in the occupied West Bank that are worth noting. The increasing focus on the criminality of Israel’s colonization in some Western countries may represent a new point of pressure that — like the international boycott of South Africa — could ultimately push Israel to a more responsible and realistic political response to the criticisms of its colonialism.

Three separate incidents lead me to suggest this:

• The Norwegian government decided to withdraw its investments from an Israeli firm that is involved in construction of Israel’s Apartheid wall (or separation barrier, as it is more euphemistically called) in the West Bank.

• The Swedes drafted a resolution to the EU last week affirming East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state, which was watered down to a call by the EU to Palestinians and Israelis to share the city.

• The British government decided last week to change food labeling guidelines to indicate if goods originate from Palestinian producers or Israeli settlements and colonies.

The Norwegian decision is the most powerful because of its decisiveness, ethical clarity, and political self-confidence. Norway announced in September that its national pension fund would no longer invest in the Israeli company Elbit Systems because the fund’s council on ethics believed that such an investment “constitutes an unacceptable risk of contribution to serious violations of fundamental ethical norms as a result of the company’s integral involvement in Israel’s construction of a separation barrier on occupied territory” in the West Bank. The company provides a surveillance system for use in the Apartheid Wall.

“We do not wish to fund companies that so directly contribute to violations of international humanitarian law,” Finance Minister Kristin Halvorsen said, explaining the Norwegian decision. “The surveillance system has been specially designed in close collaboration with the buyer and has no other applications.”

How refreshing! A respectable Western country actually puts its money where its mouth is, by using ethical guidelines to define its investments, and is not afraid to stand up to the sort of political blackmail and pressure that Israel and its goons in Washington and London typically apply to intimidate those governments from pursuing ethical foreign policies.

The council on ethics was established in 2004, “to issue recommendations on the exclusion of one or more companies from the investment universe where there is deemed to exist a considerable risk of contributing to actions or omissions that involve: Gross or systematic violation of human rights, such as murder, torture, deprivation of liberty, forced labor, the worst forms of child labor and other forms of child exploitation; gross violations of individual rights in war or conflict situations; severe environmental degradation; gross corruption, or other particularly serious violations of fundamental ethical norms.”

The fund held around $6 million worth of Elbit shares and sold them just before announcing the decision to divest.

Norway’s fellow Europeans fall short of its moral clarity and political self-confidence, but nevertheless they are making small but meaningful steps in that direction — which should worry Israel. The latest move was the decision by the British government to have food labels distinguish goods from Palestinians in the occupied territories from goods produced in Israeli settlements — rather than merely stating that the source is “Israel” or the “West Bank.” The government said it opposed boycotting Israeli goods, but took this move because it sees the settlements as an obstacle to peace.

The British decision is a step forward, though it is disappointing that the British government will not take a more forceful position on the clear illegality in international law of Israel’s colonies. Great Britain could have struck a doubly redemptive blow for itself and its muddy historical legacy, given that it was a premier pioneer in both its own colonial empire spread around the world and the Zionist enterprise that colonized the land of Palestine which had been 95 percent Arab a century ago.

The third noteworthy move is similarly significant but not overwhelmingly so — the EU’s statement that Palestinians and Israelis should share Jerusalem. The original Swedish draft asserting Arab East Jerusalem as occupied land and the capital of a future Palestinian state would have been the more forceful, ethical and politically courageous thing to do, but it seems that this is rarely the European way these days.

Nevertheless, these and other smaller steps are worth noting because they all tend to acknowledge the illegal or problematic nature of Israeli policies, which is likely to increase the pressure on Israel to change those policies, just as happened in South Africa a few decades ago.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.