Caterpillar Shareholders Send the Wrong Message with Vote

It’s said that “home is where the heart is.” It’s also been said that “money makes the world go round.” For Caterpillar shareholders, the latter truism has taken precedence as shareholders voted Wednesday against a resolution that would have directed the heavy equipment manufacturer to investigate the use of its bulldozers by the Israeli army to demolish Palestinian homes.

The resolution, which was voted down 97% to 3%, had been introduced by four Roman Catholic orders of nuns and the organization Jewish Voice for Peace. Further, groups from all over the world demonstrated to protest Caterpillar sales of home-crushing bulldozers to Israel. But none of that mattered as hopes were dashed that the shareholders would send a message that using Caterpillar equipment to abuse human rights is unacceptable.

Strangely, a visitor to Caterpillar’s web site is told, “Our goal is to be recognized as a profitable, innovative, well-managed industry leader with a strong focus on social responsibility and sustaining the environment.”

Among Caterpillar’s accomplishments have been the preservation of rainforests. Sadly, its concern for saving rainforests does not translate into concern for the one million plus olive trees Israeli troops and settlers using Caterpillar equipment have uprooted during the current Intifada. This is in addition to the thousands of Palestinian homes demolished.

Despite U.S. State Department criticism of such Israeli practices, not to mention compelling photographs and newspaper articles, Caterpillar spokesman Benjamin Cordani told me, “We do not and cannot base sales on a customer’s intended use for our product. Caterpillar is a global company that provides products and services to companies and governments throughout the world. We follow the U.S. government’s direction on international sales and have a process in place to ensure we follow all laws and guidelines.”

That makes perfectly good business sense, of course-“though it runs counter to the social responsibility on which Caterpillar prides itself -” contributing to the “quality of life of all people” touched by Caterpillar. And it’s true that there are no U.S. laws pertaining to the export of earthmoving equipment.

Cordani went on to tell me that, “Caterpillar checks the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and other governmental lists of individuals and organizations U.S. companies are forbidden to do business with overseas.”

OFAC “enforces economic and trade sanctions based on US foreign policy and national security goals against targeted foreign countries, terrorists, international narcotics traffickers, and those engaged in activities related to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”

That conversation and subsequent story was in 2001. Cordani refuses to take my calls now, as do other Caterpillar spokespersons. That’s too bad because MidEast peace is no less in our national interests today then it was in then.

So let’s look at a few statistics during the last 4 ½ years regarding contributions toward MidEast peace, according to the respected Miftah human rights organization:

– 1,085,063 olive trees uprooted

– 2,305,286 dunums of land confiscated (4 dunums = 1 acre)

– 73,505 dunums razed

– 7,708 homes demolished

Sadly, home demolitions have been used as a form of collective punishment and ethnic cleansing for many years. The pretext generally has been that the demolished homes were built without permits. Of course, despite its sensitivity to the needs of growing Jewish families and illegal settlements, the Israeli government virtually never grants building permits to Palestinians -” which can cost as much as $30,000 and take five years to obtain.

Further, while targeting Palestinian homes for destruction, Israel has authorized massive housing construction, tax incentives, roads and related infrastructure for illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

When the excuse of permits wasn’t used, “punishment” has been. But according to a recent internal Israeli army review, it was acknowledged that the controversial policy of demolishing the homes of Palestinian suicide bombers wasn’t working and only inflamed hatred. The practice has since stopped.

Common sense should dictate that confiscating land and building settlements would also inflame hatred.

Secretary Condoleezza Rice criticized Israel in unusually sharp terms recently by warning Israel’s plans to expand an Israeli West Bank settlement was "at odds with American policy" and could threaten progress toward peace with the Palestinians at a critical moment.

Since shareholders didn’t care about how Caterpillar D9 bulldozers are systematically used by Israelis to cause Palestinian suffering, they should have at least thought of American Rachel Corrie. Rachel was killed when an Israeli ran over her with a Caterpillar bulldozer as she tried to prevent a home demolition.

Good business stems from wise decisions. And continuing to sell bulldozers to Israel doesn’t seem to be a wise decision. Obviously, the shareholders felt otherwise.