All a Matter of Timing

The affair related to President Moshe Katsav blew up slightly more than three months ago, but the truth is it goes back quite a bit longer.

By February 2006, the Knesset Finance Committee was already discussing Katsav. True, the topic of debate was the recommendations of the Shohat Committee on reforming the benefits that prime ministers and presidents receive after retiring from public life.

Until then it had been the norm for retiring prime ministers or presidents to receive not only a very respectable pension for the rest of their lives, but in addition an office, a secretary, office services, a personal assistant, a luxury car and a driver. All together, these perks total about a million shekels per year, paid by the generous taxpayers, of course - all for the good of those sitting on high.

Public criticism led to the formation of the Shohat Committee, which decided that starting from January 1, 2007, the state would cease covering these services for former prime ministers Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu.

The committee also decided that from now on, prime ministers would be provided with these generous benefits for a period of only five years from the day they left the job, and former presidents would receive the perks for only seven years.

But then, under the influence of "Katsav's confidantes," the members of the Finance Committee were struck by a fit of mercy and justice for the president. Since he would only receive the niggardly pension of NIS 45,000 a month for the rest of his life, how would he make ends meet?

On February 6, 2006 the committee decided, in spite of the Shohat Committee recommendations, that Katsav would receive all the perks for the rest of his life.

Avraham Shohat, the former Finance Minister who headed the committee, was very disappointed when the MKs ignored his committee's recommendations. "The MKs' decision is inappropriate. There is no reason for Katsav to receive such conditions for the rest of his life. I call on him to commit himself to the new rules," he said.

Katsav heard, and laughed. But you can guess what the Knesset would have decided today.

"We cannot be complacent about the banks' situation; we are on the way to a very difficult period - the real test will be our ability to maintain a reasonable level of profitability in difficult times," said Galia Maor, Bank Leumi's CEO, this past week.

This week also marked another event for Bank Leumi: It drastically raised its fees for 14 different services, and invented a brand-new fee for "changing the deposit date for a post-dated check that has been deposited," at a cost of NIS 15.3.

Among these 14 services are several that affect all of us.

The fee for providing a credit line to private customers will rise by 20 percent; fees for arranging credit frameworks will jump between 23 and 145 percent; management fees for securities accounts will go up by 20 percent; depositing a post-dated check will rise 16.5 percent - and these are just a few examples.

No other sector in the economy can raise its prices in such a way.

Monopolies such as the Israel Electric Corporation have their prices regulated; and of course competitive industries cannot just increase prices without losing business.

Only our banks enjoy such abnormal terms: There is no real competition, only a "concentration group" - an oligopoly - and at the same time there is no price supervision. A real scandal.

But Maor does not really need to worry. Even if going through a "very difficult period," the bank will manage to keep a "reasonable level of profitability."

In other words, a scandalous level of profits. The public will read, get angry - and pay.