My following article appears today on ABC Unleashed/The Drum:
My investigation has found a leading Australian electric car company is linked to an Israeli firm that operates in the illegally occupied Palestinian territories.
Better Place, advertised as “dedicated to zero emissions driving”, is part of a global venture capital firm based in California that has raised over $400 million to build charging stations for electric cars across the globe. Here is the company’s promo from 2009.
Better Place Australia – led by Evan Thornley, former Labor politician and co-founder of internet search engine Looksmart – is planning a national rollout of its services across Australia by late 2012.
Thornley told BusinessDaily in early 2010 that, “there’s hardly a government, car maker or capital market in the northern hemisphere who isn’t very deeply engaged in the opportunity with electric vehicles”.
But the green credentials of the company are threatened by revelations of the Israeli figures behind the organisation and its behaviour in occupied Palestinian territory.
Better Place Israel (BPI) is led by former general Moshe Kaplinsky, deputy chief of staff of Israel’s army during the 2006 Lebanon invasion and commander of the IDF in the West Bank during the second Intifada. Both military adventures led to serious allegations of human rights abuses including the dropping of cluster bombs on civilian areas across southern Lebanon.
Israel has never been held to account over the allegations.
The Electronic Intifada (EI) website first alerted readers in early May to the issues now circling around BPI and discovered the presence of charging stations along Israel’s controversial Route 443, some of which illegally deviates directly into Palestinian territory in the West Bank.
Today, even with an Israeli High Court ruling that demands equal access to the road for both Palestinians and Israelis, the road remains partly inaccessible to indigenous Palestinians in the area.
An EI reporter was told by BPI that the company was willing to install charging stations “anywhere…you want to live”, including the West Bank.
Some of Better Place’s supporters have an Australian connection.
I contacted Macquarie Capital, which has reportedly pledged to fund the construction of plug-in stations, and asked if they knew about BPI’s behaviour in the Middle East. A spokeswoman refused to discuss the role of Better Place Australia or answer any questions about its Israeli connection but said Macquarie is only a financial advisor to the company and has no relationship with the Israeli arm.
“We only have a local management relationship and cannot discuss negotiations or advice given to Better Place”, she said.
Local Better Place management is directly connected to BPI.
A key backer is Wolfensohn and Co, the investment firm run by former World Bank President, Middle East Quartet envoy and Australian-born, Jewish, American citizen James Wolfensohn.
The firm didn’t respond to my request for comment.
When I contacted Better Place Australia with a list of questions related to the company’s actions in the occupied territories I was referred to headquarters in Palo Alto and the Vice President of Communications, Joe Paluska. He avoided answering any questions about BPI’s attempts to integrate Israel’s miliary and political establishment towards a greenwashing agenda and told me that, “Better Place is a privately-held global company…with operations around the world including in Israel, Denmark, Australia, US, Canada, Japan, China, France, Germany and The Netherlands.”
When pushed on particular details about BPI’s presence in the West Bank, Paluska responded: “Each operating unit is broadly responsible for local deployment and local relations and reports to our global team here in Palo Alto.”
Paluska refused to answer the following questions:
– Does Better Place Australia do any work in the occupied territories and what is the company’s views about it?
– There are serious charges allegations against BPI’s chief executive Moshe Kaplinsky’s role in Israel’s Lebanon invasion in 2006 and invasion of the West Bank during the second Intifada….What is the company’s response and is it appropriate for a man such as Kaplinsky to be heading a group that aims to promote a greener future for the world?
– Evidence exists that finds Better Place charging stations in settlements on the West Bank and along Highway 443, a road that includes roughly 30 km that runs through the West Bank. What is the company’s response to these allegations?
– Does Better Place in Australia have a relationship with the Rudd government and are they aware of the allegations against the company’s activities in the West Bank?
– After the recent Rudd government decision to expel a Mossad agent from Australia, how does Better Place see Australia’s relationship with Israel?
Better Place Australia is not directly involved in the company’s Israeli operations but the firm is just the latest attempt to “normalise” Israeli behaviour. Wired magazine published a feature in 2008 about the organisation that notably avoided any serious examination of the company’s connection to the Israeli military establishment – President Shimon Peres is a big fan of BPI’s attempt to move away from the Western reliance on oil and repressive Arab states – and simply praised founder Shai Agassi and his “vision” for the future.
In May a number of leading scholars, including Noam Chomsky, protested the Boston Museum of Science co-sponsoring and hosting “Israeli Innovation Weekend” (IIW) which featured the Better Place initiative.
The statement read: “IIW is far from an innocent educational endeavour. It is part of a propaganda campaign by the State of Israel to present itself as a beacon of progress in a desert of backwardness and deflect attention from its atrocious human rights record and fundamentally discriminatory policies”.
Leading Israeli journalist and blogger Noam Sheizaf told me that BPI is very high profile in Israel, has been adopted by many politicians and is “always promoted as an example of Israel’s contribution to the world”.
Sheizaf said that the BPI project in the West Bank may not be “criminal…but what it teaches us is that large portions of Israel’s economy – more than we can imagine, and even more than the Palestinian boycott or other publicised acts show – is tied to the occupation and to colonisation.
“There is something hopelessly naive – if not pure false – about an attempt to separate ‘good’ Israel from ‘occupying’ Israel. Not every Israeli is as bad as the extreme settlers of Hebron, but the occupation is the Israeli national project, so before we celebrate inventions such as this green car, we should also think who benefits from it, and on whose expense.”