Norway envoy summoned on divestment

FM official slams Norway's decision to divest from Elbit over West Bank security barrier surveillance.

Kristin Halvorsen 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Kristin Halvorsen 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Seven years after Israel started building the West Bank security barrier, but less than two weeks before Norwegian national elections, Norway's finance minister on Thursday announced that Elbit Systems Ltd. had been dropped from the country's pension fund investments due to "ethical concerns" regarding its work on the structure. Israeli diplomatic officials, incensed by the decision, reacted tepidly because they did not want to play into the hands of the ruling "Red-Green" government, which they said was using this issue to curry favor with a specific part of the Norwegian electorate. "There is no doubt this is connected to the elections," one official said. "Is Elbit only now involved with the fence? There is no doubt that this is a cheap political attempt to get a few votes from a very specific constituency." Norway goes to the polls on September 14. Since 2004, a national Council of Ethics has routinely reviewed investments by the fund, and periodically recommends dropping shares based on a range of concerns, including human rights, labor rights, environmental issues and production of nuclear weapons and cluster bombs. Some 30 international companies are blacklisted by the fund, among them Boeing, Wal-Mart, EADS (The European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company), France's Safran and Britain's BAE Systems. Foreign Minister director-general Yossi Gal summonsed Norway's envoy to Israel to the ministry on Thursday afternoon, to protest the decision. Israel, according to a Foreign Ministry statement, will "consider its response in the future." "We do not wish to fund companies that so directly contribute to violations of international humanitarian law," Norwegian Finance Minister Kristin Halvorsen said in announcing the decision. She said the shares were sold secretly before the announcement. The security barrier unacceptably restricted the movements of Palestinians in the West Bank, so that an investment in any company involved in the project causes "unacceptable risk of contribution to particularly serious violations of fundamental ethical norms," she said. Israel was also galled that the public announcement was made while Israel's ambassador was still in the Norwegian Foreign Ministry being informed of the decision. "In diplomacy, this is simply not done," one Israeli official said. The pension fund is worth more than $333 billion and is managed by Norway's central bank. Elbit Systems is one of Israel's most successful defense companies and is a worldwide expert in unmanned aerial vehicles, electro-optic technology and communication and surveillance equipment. It has more than 8,000 employees. The Haifa-based firm declined to comment. The Norwegian investment in Elbit was unknown to the company's leadership. The investment was valued just over $5 million, which did not constitute even 1 percent of the company's value. Elbit's senior management is usually only aware of investors who are stakeholders in the company, meaning they own at least 5% of the shares. Defense officials downplayed the Norwegian announcement and said they were not concerned that other countries would follow Oslo in divesting from Israeli companies. The officials said that Norway's decision to divest from Elbit was strange since it was purchasing the US Joint Strike Fighter - also known as the F-35 - which will come equipped with a helmet developed and manufactured by Elbit. Norway has already invested more than $100m. in the JSF program. The helmet, specially designed for JSF manufacturer Lockheed Martin, allows pilots to see all of the plane's systems and flight data on a heads-up display inside the helmet, without having to look down at a control panel. "It is pretty strange that on the one hand Norway is divesting from the company, but still plans to buy the JSF, which comes with an Elbit-made helmet," one official said. AP contributed to this report.