The arcane world of finance is not something I normally turn to for hope or inspiration. Yet to my surprise, I was filled with both at the annual general meeting of Dexia, a Belgian-French bank.
No fewer than 45 shareholders took the floor at the Brussels event on Wednesday to denounce how its subsidiary Dexia Israel loans to illegal settlements in the West Bank. The speakers included politicians, doctors, academics and trade unionists, all of whom pressurised the bank’s board – chaired by former Belgian prime minister Jean-Luc Dehaene - to address a topic they would prefer to evade. Searching through the mind-numbing 263 pages of Dexia’s latest annual report, I could only find one paragraph specifically related to Dexia Israel.
In a brief statement, Dehaene confirmed that Dexia is in negotiations aimed at selling its Israeli division and that he expects a deal to be concluded in the next few months. He also reiterated an assurance he first gave in 2009 that Dexia is no longer making fresh investments in the settlements.
That assurance proved false. The Coalition of Women for Peace (CWP), a Tel Aviv-based group, has documented how seventeen new loans worth a total of $6.5 million were given by Dexia Israel to councils in the settlements in the second half of 2008 and during 2009.
“Selling Dexia Israel is not the end of the story,” the CWP’s Inna Michaeli told me. “By selling it, Dexia will be making an additional profit. The question is how Dexia takes responsibility for what it has already done and what it continues to do.”
Dexia Israel was formed in 2001 after Dexia bought the bank Otzar Hashilton Hamekomi, as part of a strategy to become a global leader in lending to public authorities. Ten years later, Dexia claims that its Israeli subsidiary no longer belongs to its “core business” and that its planned sale is part of a wider restructuring process necessitated by the crisis in the international economy.
Undoubtedly, Dexia Israel’s future status will be determined by hard-headed business decisions. But there is also no doubt that Palestine solidarity activists have caused severe embarrassment for Dexia over the past few years, particularly by convincing members of Belgian regional and provincial authorities, which hold many of the bank’s shares, to ask awkward questions.
Besides, it was heartening to observe Dehaene’s unease at the AGM. One of the few moments of levity came when one shareholder suggested that as a former boy scout he was obliged to support the dispossessed. “Scouts must do one good deed every day,” the speaker added, to which Dehaene replied: “I am doing my good deed.”
·First published by Mondoweiss (www.mondoweiss.net), 12 May 2011