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"The price at which El Al was issued isn't important. We'd have floated it for free, too," Transport Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Thursday morning, as trade in the privatized airline's shares opened on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange.

The government had sold off shares and options in El Al ealier this week. Thursday, as the securities were floated on the exchange, was the first occasion for the general public to express their opinion on the sale price. Their excitement over the issue was clear - the volume of trading in El Al shares was the third largest on the exchange floor after banks Hapoalim and Leumi - and the price just hit the skies.

Much of the trade was attributed to a positioning of the major players believing that a battle could hot up for control in El Al.

The state on Thursday published the official results of this week's issue of stocks and options in the state-owned national airline. Some 1,700 people bid for NIS 180 million worth of units. Bidders had a choice of five packages, each containing a different ratio of shares to options, and bids for the more expensive packages (those with a higher share component) were completely filled. People who bid for the cheapest package, however, received only 40.3 percent of the amount they requested.

At close of play Thursday, El Al's share had reached 92.4 agorot, which for those investors who had successfully bid for the issue translated into a 77 percent gain on the deal.

Altogether, the public bought 15 percent of the airline, and will own 91 percent after 2004 if all the options are exercised. In this case, the state would receive a total of NIS 110 million - all of which would be deposited into the El Al employees' seriously underfunded compensation fund.

In a visit to the stock exchange Thursday to celebrate El Al's inauguration as a publicly traded company, the transport minister said that anybody managing to consolidate a majority on its board could run the company as they please. Attention has focused on the Borovitch brothers, who control the Arkia airline through Knafaim, and who snapped up some 46,500 share packages on El Al's flotation.

The government was clearly delighted at El Al's success. "From the government's perspective, El Al's just the first company [to be privatized]," Lieberman said yesterday. "By year-end, I estimate that another two companies will have been sold."

MI Holdings, which manages privatization for the government, is expected to be encouraged by this week's launch, and is likely to prepare a quick sale of control in state-controled Israel Discount Bank. Interested parties have already begun sizing up the situation and bringing together potential investors to form consortia in an expected tender. They may also be prompted by the apparent low price that the treasury agreed on in El Al's case.