Florida CFO warns Norway against divesting from Israel

By Mike Wagenheim

(JNS) — Ahead of a visit to Israel by Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Sunshine State’s chief financial officer told JNS that Norway is out of line in considering divesting from the Jewish state.

Jimmy Patronis, the Florida CFO, sent a letter late last month to Heidi Olufsen, Norway’s consul general in New York, to “express serious concerns regarding reports that Norway’s Sovereign Wealth Fund is reviewing recommendations by your nation’s ethics committee to add Israel to its excluded funds list.”

Among the world’s largest investors, Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global is reportedly approaching a decision whether to pull its funds from Israeli banks and potentially cease further investment in the Jewish state.

“We have taken a series of steps over the past years whenever we have seen anti-Israel, BDS stuff taking place. So we have a familiarity when people pick fights with our friends in Israel,” Patronis told JNS.

Florida CFO Jimmy Patronis. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

“I think it’s unfortunate and short-sighted that the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund is making this type of a position or change in their investment strategy,” added Patronis. “I think it’s important to call them out.”

The Norwegian fund, which manages assets worth $1.3 trillion in 70 countries and about 9,400 companies worldwide, is examining some of the policies and processes by which Israeli banks grant credit and loans to companies that operate beyond the so-called “Green Line.”

The fund compiled the list of banks it is investigating based on a controversial 2020 blacklist released by the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Late last year, it announced that it would stop investing in Israeli investigative analytics software company Cognyte due to an “unacceptable risk” of human-rights violations.

Patronis wrote to Olufsen that singling Israel out and the fund’s increasing reliance on socially conscious “environmental, social and governance” ratings of companies are a recipe for disaster. The ESG movement has come under fire for shifting investment priorities to what are often politically charged factors.

“Relying on bad metrics, and ESG, for divestment decisions could create immense problems for both of our nations,” Patronis wrote. “A divestment from Israeli banks, of this scale, may have devastating effects on the entire Israeli economy and stability within the Middle East.”

Markets are already sensitive following the collapse of Silicon Valley Banks, he wrote. “Additionally, Israeli banks should not be singled out, as opposed to other international financial institutions.”

When the issue was recently brought to his attention, Patronis was particularly appalled, he told JNS. The sovereign wealth fund, which was created off of profits from Norway’s vast North Sea oil and natural-gas reserves and which invests heavily in areas like China, wants to use ESG-focused issues to batter Israel’s economy, he said.

“I look at Israel as a friend of the state of Florida,” Patronis told JNS. “I see the sovereign wealth fund making investments in China, where there’s little respect for human rights and no care for carbon emissions. But then they’ll want to divest from places that are playing a better role of treating humankind and the environment.”

‘It’s a very disturbing development’

A prominent member of Norway’s Jewish community, who also works in Middle East business affairs, told JNS Norway’s actions with regards to Israel are of concern to him “both of the outcome in terms of stability in Israel and also in terms of encouraging antisemitic attitudes in Norway.”

“Those who are already labeling Jewish products from Judea in shops today would later start labeling the Jewish state and Jews and the streets. It’s a very disturbing development,” On Elpeleg, a founding member of the city of Bergen’s Jewish association and a Middle East commercial attaché for Somalia, told JNS. (He spoke in his personal capacity, not on behalf of the city’s Jewish community or Somalia.)

Elpeleg said the fund’s actions reward Norwegian extremists, at the same time going against the country’s mission to support peace in the region.

“It is a matter of fact that the far-left and far-right extremists in Norway are the strongest supporters of employing BDS warfare against Israel,” Onpeleg told JNS. “Norway, the country of the Nobel Peace Prize, should support the struggle for democracy and peace in the Middle East with constructive — rather than destructive warfare — measures against the only democracy in that region.”

Conrad Myrland, the CEO of the Norwegian nonprofit For Peace with Israel (Med Israel for fred or MIFF), told JNS that the MIFF appreciates that a Florida official penned the letter to the Norwegian consul general in New York.

“A divestment from Israeli banks will be of great damage to the Israeli-Norwegian relations, and we cannot see any way the wealth fund can do this without breaking Norwegian anti-discriminations laws,” he told JNS.

Myrland cited a December letter, which UK Lawyers for Israel sent to several wealth fund officials, which noted in part that the fund holds several investments in companies “active in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, where the Moroccan authorities have encouraged extensive settlement by Moroccan nationals.”

The letter also noted that of the nine companies the fund has publicly placed on its “excluded” list for alleged “serious violations of individuals’ rights in situations of war or conflict,” six are Israeli companies, which provide services that may assist Israeli residents beyond the Green Line.

“The other three companies excluded to date on this basis have been excluded for supporting actors who have carried out mass murders in South Sudan and Myanmar,” the letter stated. “No other companies have been excluded for providing civilian services in disputed territories.”

Patronis, who encouraged Olufsen to deliver his message to her government, told JNS he has received no immediate reply. JNS inquiries to Norway’s New York consulate and ministries of foreign affairs and finance remain unanswered.

DeSantis is scheduled to deliver a keynote address at Jerusalem’s Museum of Tolerance on April 27 as part of a larger trade delegation to the country.