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Berkeley Readies a Boycott of Israelis and Palestinians

April 23, 2002
San Francisco Chronicle
by Chuck Squatriglia

Divestiture Seen As Way to Bring Peace

Having led the nation in divesting from South Africa and helping bring an end to apartheid, the Berkeley City Council tonight will consider clearing the city's portfolio of investments in Israel and Palestinian territory in an attempt to bring peace to the Middle East.

The ambitious plan also calls on City Hall to boycott firms doing business with Israel and the Palestinians and would prohibit the purchase of products made there. Backers believe it would make Berkeley the first city to boycott the two sides.

No one backing the proposal by the city's Peace and Justice Commission believes that Berkeley alone can end the violence. But they hope other cities will follow its lead, creating economic incentive for Jews and Palestinians to make peace.

"Berkeley is a small city, and its economy is not going to make or break the Middle East," said commissioner Steve Freedkin. "But if others follow suit, it could have quite an impact."

The true effect of the measure remains to be seen, as no one at City Hall had a clue yesterday how much money Berkeley has invested in the region, nor did anyone know how many contracts it holds with companies doing business with Israel and the Palestinians.

City Manager Weldon Rucker is urging the council to delay action until May 28 so he can answer those questions. He also wonders how the measure would be adopted and enforced.

"Managing this thing would be a major undertaking," said Fred Medrano, who supervises the Peace and Justice Commission for Rucker. "The finance department is real concerned with its ability to implement this."

If the measure is approved, every city investment and contract would have to be reviewed. The effect could be huge because some of the nation's biggest companies, including General Electric, Hewlett-Packard, Cisco Systems, AOL Time Warner and Microsoft do business in Israel.

While there is mounting pressure on many college campuses -- including the University of California at Berkeley -- for universities to divest from Israel, Berkeley is unique in making targets of both Israel and the Palestinians.

"We feel that all parties need to respect human rights and provide for peace and security in the region," Freedkin said.

Although the council probably will delay deciding on divestiture, it is expected to embrace the commission's more mainstream proposals, including "supporting all efforts by individuals and groups toward a just peace in Israel and Palestine."

Berkeley has long used its pocketbook to influence global affairs with varying degrees of success. Its pioneering decision to divest from South Africa in 1979 was widely seen as a turning point in the effort to end apartheid.

But the U.S. Supreme Court two years ago unanimously barred Berkeley and other cities from boycotting Burma because the United States must speak with one voice in foreign affairs.

In an embarrassing turn of events, the city in 1997 had to scramble to find a gasoline supplier when it decided to boycott Nigeria, precluding it from dealing with most petroleum firms.