Minister Eli Yishai deflects criticism.
Minister Eli Yishai deflects criticism. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi
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Tomer Appelbaum
Ronen Tzur Photo by Tomer Appelbaum

A public relations expert who was paid by the Shas party to serve as a consultant to Interior Minister Eli Yishai stands to earn hundreds of thousands of shekels from another client if he convinces the Interior Ministry to liberalize restrictions on the use of migrant labor in the construction industry.

The PR consultant, Ronen Tzur, advised Yishai on dealing with the public outcry over the 2010 Carmel Fire disaster, which focused on Yishai because his ministry oversees the fire services. Tzur has advised the Shas chairman on other issues connected with his ministry as well.

But Tzur also represents a nonprofit organization that promotes the interests of manpower agencies that seek to place foreign workers in the construction industry. And he stands to earn a major fee if he gets the interior minister to loosen restrictions on employing foreign construction workers.

When asked to comment for this article, Tzur said he has no business relationship with the Interior Ministry or its Population and Immigration Authority, "and in any event, the interior minister does not and never did have any connection or involvement with, or information about, my contract [with the nonprofit], and it will remain that way in the future."

Tzur was recently retained by the nonprofit under an agreement that promises him tens of thousands of shekels for two months' work, in addition to a bonus of NIS 250,000 if he manages to change a ministry policy adopted in late 2011 that bars personnel firms from bringing foreign construction workers to Israel. The new policy requires all such workers to be brought in by the Population and Immigration Authority.

Any change in that policy would have to be made by the interior minister, based on the recommendation of an interministerial committee.

The new rule put an end to the fees charged by manpower agencies for placing migrants in local construction jobs. Last year, the Knesset's Research and Information Center estimated that if 15,000 workers were brought here from China, it would result in $300 million in illegal and unreported profits to intermediaries, which it said charged workers an average of $20,000 each. By law, the report noted, the intermediaries' fees were capped at NIS 3,400 per worker. Thus the new policy will cut sharply into the agencies' profits.

Until that policy was instituted, however, manpower agencies had been expecting a sharp rise in their profits: In July 2011, the cabinet approved a proposal by Yishai to raise the quota on foreign workers in the construction industry to 8,000, a 60 percent increase over the approximately 5,000 who worked in Israel at the time.

That decision, spurred by pressure from the construction industry, reversed a 2008 cabinet decision that called for gradually reducing the number of foreign construction workers until 2016, when they would be barred from working here altogether. The contractors had complained that the 2008 decision caused labor shortages that in turn contributed to the sharp rise in local housing prices in recent years.

The new policy makes the arrival of migrant workers contingent on bilateral agreements between Israel and the relevant government agencies in the workers' countries of origin. Yishai adopted the policy on the recommendation of an interministerial committee composed of representatives from the immigration authority and the Finance Ministry. The new rules constituted a blow not only to the manpower agencies, but also to contractors who employed foreign workers.

The nonprofit representing manpower agencies in the construction industry, called Hitachdut Ma'asikei Koach Ha'adam Hazar Le'binyan (literally, the Union of Employers of Foreign Manpower for Construction ), recently hired Tzur to lobby for a change in the Interior Ministry's stance in an effort to permit the manpower firms to continue bringing in the workers.

Tzur is considered an aggressive and controversial PR agent. He initially represented former President Moshe Katsav, who is now serving jail time following his conviction for rape and other sexual offenses, but then resigned from the job over Katsav's first speech after the charges were filed. Another client was Boaz Harpaz, the former army officer suspected of forging a document meant to scuttle Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant's candidacy to become Israel Defense Forces chief of staff. Tzur also represented businessman Yitzhak Tshuva in his efforts to lobby the Sheshinski Committee, which revised Israel's policy on natural gas royalties - a matter of great importance to Tshuva's Delek group.

Over the past year and half, Tzur has become a familiar figure in Yishai's office, serving as the minister's strategic adviser in dealing with the state comptroller's investigation into the Carmel Fire. The comptroller's report ultimately singled out Yishai and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz for particular criticism.

Tzur has continued providing advice to Yishai to this day, including on matters related to his responsibilities as minister. But his services are paid for by the Shas party rather than the ministry.

In his response to Haaretz, Tzur termed the manpower agencies "the backbone that enables the housing industry to obtain professional workers in accordance with cabinet decisions, which clearly defined the rules for working with the agencies. Without these agencies, there won't be workers for the housing industry, so housing prices will continue to increase, harming both consumers and the contractors. We will assist them [the agencies] in improving their image among the public, so that the problems in this image, which in the past have limited their activity, are corrected, and they will be able to resume regular operations of the kind they carried out for years in the past."

Interior Ministry spokesman Ohad Yehezkeli said that his ministry "has no business relationship with the Tzur Communications firm, nor has it in the past. The minister has never been asked to intervene in this matter [the policy on manpower agencies], and he has no involvement with Ronen Tzur's client list or that of any other consulting firm. The ministry's position is known and is consistent with cabinet decisions, which require workers to be brought in through bilateral agreements. A change in this position has never come up or been requested in any forum."

The immigration authority said the agency has no intention of changing its plan to bring in workers through bilateral agreements, and it is working to expand the number of countries with which Israel has such agreements.