On Thursday, the ministerial committee on privatization will meet to hear Merrill Lynch's opinion regarding the privatization of Bezeq. The investment bank will claim that at this time there is no reason to continue the process of selling the state's stock in the company since no international strategic investor is interested in buying the firm.
However, Communications Minister Reuven Rivlin says the sale ought to go ahead "in order to show the world that we are serious about privatization." Yaron Jacobs, director of the Government Companies Authority, disagrees, contending that if the sale is offered and no buyer steps forward, then Israel will suffer untold damage. As a result, there is no advantage in starting the process.
But what's interesting is that Bezeq could have become a privatized company linked to an international concern. The story began in May 1995, when a surprising wave of offers for Bezeq shares poured onto the stock market. Within days, it became clear that a British communications concern was avidly buying up Bezeq shares. The company was Cable & Wireless, several times bigger than Bezeq, which operates in dozens of countries.
The British firm viewed Bezeq as a strategic investment at a time when the Israeli company became known to millions of people worldwide as an attractive buy, with articles on the firm even spread across the pages of the respected Financial Times. What could have been better?
But Cable & Wireless' chairman Lord Young wasn't quite aware of how things work here. He had no idea that you can't just turn up and buy shares on the local stock market. Here, government ministers are the kings and civil servants the princes, and if you don't grovel and scrape before speaking to them - well then there's no chance. What does an internationally renowned company think it's doing buying up Bezeq without waiting for the Finance Ministry to sit and decide first? And if Bezeq is sold, what will be the fate of all those political appointees in the company?
And so, with increasing hatred, the treasury began a campaign against Cable & Wireless, distributing to the press nasty stories about the company. The company was denied representation on Bezeq's board of directors despite holding 7 percent of its stock, and treasury senior staff did all they could to scare the British concern out of the country, because who knows how many hundreds of other potential foreign investors were knocking on the government's door trying to buy state-owned companies.
Finance minister Avraham Shochat and his director general David Brodet said at the time they were on the brink of issuing an international tender for the sale of the company which was likely to attract better suitors at better prices than that offered by Cable & Wireless. But nothing came of that.
After the treasury had killed off Cable & Wireless' offer, the company picked up stakes and at the end of 1999, sold its holdings in Bezeq to Gad Zeevi. And so we arrive at today, when not even one strategic investor in the whole world is ready to buy Bezeq. Long live Israeli bureaucracy!
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