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A merger between two major do-it-yourself chains may be in the offing, Haaretz has learned: Home Center is looking into the possibility of buying Ace Hardware.

But such a merger might well be vetoed by the Antitrust Authority. "On the face of things, it seems that a merger between Home Center and Ace would be problematic," Antitrust Commissioner Dror Strum said last night. "But we haven't yet received any such request. If we do, we'll examine it."

Home Center is Israel's largest DIY chain, with some 40 branches nationwide and estimated annual sales of about NIS 1 billion. Ace, its principal competitor, has 25 stores, plus 12 stores under the Auto Depot name. Ace's turnover in 2004 was about NIS 570 million.

Ace is currently owned by Zeevi Holdings, a member of the Galaxo group. Galaxo was recently taken over by a court-appointed receiver, attorney Lipa Meir, at the request of its creditor, First International Bank.

Sources connected to Home Center said that the chain is currently seeking access to Ace's books to help it decide whether to pursue the acquisition. According to these sources, Antitrust Authority officials have said that they cannot bar such access, but Meir, Galaxo's receiver, is refusing to open the company's books to Home Center without a pre-ruling from Strum that he would not bar the merger.

Home Center is interested in buying Ace because it is currently having trouble growing on its own, the sources added. They rejected the suggestion that Home Center's overtures are merely a way of obtaining information about a key rival.

No response was obtainable from Home Center last night. Ace CEO Yaki Vadmani said that he has no idea who the candidates to acquire Ace are, but as far as he knows, the chain has not yet opened its books to any potential buyers.

But Vadmani was skeptical about the chances of Strum's approving a merger between Home Center and Ace. "I have no doubt that the commissioner would permit Home Center to buy Ace - a minute after permitting Yedioth Ahronoth to buy Maariv and Supersol to buy Blue Square," he said sarcastically, referring to two megamergers that Strum would almost certainly veto.