DETROIT — A former U.S. ambassador to Israel said Tuesday that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is on the wrong track if it seeks to influence Israeli behavior by divestment.
With a recommendation to divest presented to it by its Committee on Middle East Issues, the General Assembly must rule on the question this week. In a telephone interview, Daniel C. Kurtzer said that, if the GA steps across the divestment threshold — as it declined to do two years ago, when the same recommendation lay before it — it would have little impact on Israeli treatment of Palestinians.
“It will make no difference practically,” said Kurtzer, who was U.S. ambassador to Israel from 2001 to 2005 and ambassador to Egypt from 1997 to 2001. Kurtzer, 65, is now professor of Middle East Studies at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.
If the church pulls investments out of the three companies targeted for divestment — Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions — “it will raise a bit of a public relations issue” for the Israelis, and there will be accusations that the church is acting from anti-Israel or even anti-Semitic motives, Kurtzer said.
“But it will lead to no change at all in their policies,” which are driven by security concerns, he said. Kurtzer predicted Israelis would push back on the point of consistency, asking whether Presbyterians have shown the same degree of concern for human rights violations elsewhere in the world.
By drawing on the U.S. Department of State’s human rights reports, “you could end up divesting from most American companies, because we do business all over the world, including in places where there’s a lot of nasty stuff going on,” he said.
Both the General Assembly held in 2012 and the one now in session in Detroit have had clear recommendations from the PC(USA)’s Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee to sell the church’s holdings in Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions. MRTI claims Israel uses those companies’ products and services in ways that violate the human rights of Palestinian civilians.
If the GA votes to divest, Israelis would also push back on the church’s focus on companies that help ensure security, Kurtzer said. “Because if there’s ever going to be peace, the Israelis will argue, it will only be at a moment when they feel that their security is assured, not when people are calling that into question.”
Israelis will “do what they feel they have to do to protect themselves,” he said. And Kurtzer pointed out that Israelis are likely to resent outside criticism when they have an open society that allows them to challenge their country’s actions just as sharply as the PC(USA) is attempting to do.
“It happens to be a society where there’s usually a fairly healthy dose of self-criticism, introspection,” he said. “They have commissions of inquiry and all the rest.”
Given that atmosphere, divestment “will lead to anger — but, you know, that’s not an outcome,” Kurtzer said.
Apart from its failure to change behavior by the Israeli government, divestment would impact Israeli public opinion in a way “opposite of the way the church would like it impacted,” he said. An “overwhelming majority” of Israelis, he said, “will simply say, ‘these are a bunch of hypocrites who don’t like us,’ and … they’ll just hunker down. You know, if there’s an assumption that this will change attitudes in some way, it’s a very wrong assumption.”
Kurtzer said he hoped the PC(USA) was consulting with people who have expertise on meaningful ways to influence Israeli behavior. “And this is not one of those ways to do it,” he said.