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Effort to Pressure Caterpillar on Tractor Sales to Israel is Defeated

April 14, 2005
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For years, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been known as “the Bulldozer” for his willingness to ride roughshod over any opposition to accomplish his goals. But critics of his government’s tough response to Palestinian violence would like to remove Caterpillar bulldozers from Israel’s military arsenal.

About 150 demonstrators turned out Wednesday in Peoria, Ill., outside the corporate headquarters of Caterpillar Inc., carrying pictures of the Israeli army using the company’s bulldozers to destroy Palestinian homes.

The protest, outside Caterpillar’s annual shareholder meeting, was the latest manifestation of a drive to pressure companies and institutions that do business with Israel to stop dealing with the Jewish state. Like most such attempts, Wednesday’s effort failed when Caterpillar shareholders overwhelmingly rejected the resolution.

The resolution to investigate the use of Caterpillar bulldozers by the Israeli army received only 3 percent of shareholders’ votes, below even the minimum of 6 percent needed to re-introduce the issue at next year’s meeting.

The resolution said Israel has used bulldozers to destroy thousands of homes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and asked for an investigation into whether such use conforms to Caterpillar’s code of business conduct.

Israel often uses the bulldozers after a suicide bombing to destroy the family homes of terrorists who carried out the attack as a deterrent to would-be terrorists, or to destroy houses that cover the entrances to arms-smuggling tunnels. They also are used to destroy homes built illegally, without permits.

The resolution was introduced by four Roman Catholic orders of nuns and the Berkeley, Calif.-based Jewish Voice for Peace. Supporters included the Presbyterian Church USA and the United Methodist Church.

“With a 3 percent vote, we estimate that this resolution was supported by about 7.5 million votes, equal to $650 million,” Cecily Surasky, spokesperson for Jewish Voice for Peace, said in a statement. “This shows that many mainstream investors (and not just social investors) voted for this resolution.”

Surasky also noted that Caterpillar’s stock dropped by 3 percent Wednesday, which she called a sign that “the company will have to deal with this issue sooner rather than later.”

There was no indication that the drop had anything to do with the resolution, however.

Rallies to oppose bulldozer sales, organized by Jewish Voice for Peace, were held Wednesday in 40 cities across the country.

Going into the meeting, Caterpillar spokesman Ben Cordani said the board of directors opposed the resolution because it was impossible for the company to monitor use of its equipment worldwide.

Several Jewish groups organized campaigns against the divestment push. The American Jewish Congress bought Caterpillar stock so that members of the organization could attend the meeting and speak against the resolution.

Before the meeting, AJCongress spokesman Juda Engelmayer said his organization’s representatives would be given a few minutes to address the board.

They would “speak about the importance of a country defending itself, and about not taking out aggressions on doing business with bona fide countries,” he said.

Allyson Taylor, associate director of the AJCongress’ Western regional office, was at the meeting and emphasized to shareholders that “divestment is not a path to peace. At a time when Israel is trying to implement a tenuous peace plan, this would run contrary to that goal.”

“We stand behind Caterpillar’s decision not to single out one country” for censure, she added.

According to Taylor, other factors also played a part in the resolution’s defeat. She pointed out that not all Caterpillar tractors are sold directly by the company to the Israeli army; many are resold by intermediaries. That would make it extremely difficult to monitor sales.

Additionally, she said, “tractors don’t just bulldoze houses. They also build roads and do farm work.”

Protestors sought a silver lining despite the resolution’s failure.

“The main thing is that the issue dominated the Caterpillar shareholder meeting,” said Liat Weingart, a Jewish Voice for Peace member. “We’re really pleased, because it means people are talking about it.”

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