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In the five years she has been the controlling shareholder at Bank Hapoalim, Shari Arison has never publicly spoken of bank matters. She concentrated on charity work, never offered any forecast or business analysis, zealously protected her privacy. Hence she caused some amazement by calling an urgent news conference last month on the 900 layoffs at Bank Hapoalim.

This was meant to respond to criticism voiced by the banks' labor committees of the major stockholders of Bank Hapoalim - Arison included - regarding the layoffs of the bank's employees. This was shortly after the banks' labor committees ran an advertisement that read: "Bank Hapoalim is throwing 1,000 workers into the street, the result of its greed and avarice, because NIS 1.5 billion in profits are not enough for the shareholders."

Demonstrators from one of the labor committees raised a sign that read: "Shari Arison is greedy." This incensed Arison and she consulted her PR advisor Rani Rahav, and decided to call an immediate news conference.

The decision perturbed some Bank Hapoalim managers. Over the past few months, many hours of discussion had been spent crafting a response to all aspects of the downsizing, including public aspects and media angles. They were concerned that any provocative statements Arison might make would deflect the spin on the dismissals into and unknown and unwanted direction.

But when the meeting was over, many at the bank, including Arison's closest aides, felt it had been a success. She had done a good job getting her messages across, with simplicity and sincerity. She spoke of the decision to downsize as a practical necessity dictated by the crisis in the economy, she made it clear that if it was not done now, the bank would at some future time have to face more serious difficulties.

She emphasized that the compensation package offered the dismissed workers was quite respectable for Israel. She did not use the occasion to trumpet her own altruistic work, nor did she apologize for the bank's decision to fire the employees.

A month after the news conference, it is now clear that Arison's decision to be interviewed on business matters for the first time in effect dragged her to the center of the Histadrut and bank confrontation.

Poster child

Aside from Shari Arison, the ownership group in Bank Hapoalim includes the Dankner family and American investors like Michael Steinhardt, the Schusterman family, Len Abramson and Lew Ranieri, but the Histadrut is focusing its attack on Arison, whose personal worth is estimated at $3.3 billion.

Ted Arison's heiress, who initially did not even want the various businesses her father left her, and who spent some time learning to love them, has become a poster child for the "heartless moneyed class" in the affair. In so doing, she has drawn fire from several decision-makers at the bank, chiefly chairman of the board Shlomo Nehama and vice chairman Danny Dankner, who were much more involved in the downsizing plan than she.

Arison, whose status as the richest person in Israel and one of the richest in the world basically played into the hands of Histadrut officials and the banks' labor committees, who were looking for a target on which they could focus their struggle. What's more, they were happy to jazz up the election campaign of Am Ehad, the political party that is headed by Histadrut leader Amir Peretz. Essentially, she was the obvious target.

What could be easier than putting an older unemployed person from a development town who had just lost his job at the bank in front of the billionaire heiress who controls an empire that includes Bank Hapoalim; Shikun U'Binui (Housing and Construction Holdings); 50 percent of Eurocom communications company; part-ownership of Carnival Cruises, the world's largest cruise ship company; and a series of other companies in Israel and abroad?

Last week, Arison's wrath was kindled once more, when she found large billboards gracing the area around her home in North Tel Aviv, which read: "Shari Arison is laughing - 900 families are crying." Through her attorney, Reuven Reif, she contacted the Histadrut, Poster Media (the company that owns the billboards), and the newspapers, to demand that the signs be removed post haste. She threatened a $10 million lawsuit.

Poster Media removed the ads. It subsequently emerged that Arison also has indirect ownership of that company, through Gaon Investments, Ltd. Arison holds 6.25 percent of Gaon Holdings, the sole owner of Poster Media.

Cowed media

Ma'ariv and Ha'aretz pulled the ads, running others in their place, and Yediot Aharonot had been unwilling from the outset to run the anti-Arison advertisements. Arison's threatened lawsuit, and the agreement of the various media outlets to remove the anti-Shari Arison ads enraged the Histadrut, which saw it as an attempt to suppress freedom of speech.

Arison did not see it that way, but as a natural desire to respond to what she viewed as an out-and-out lie. She made it clear to those around her that she did not find the dismissals at Bank Hapoalim at all funny and she was not willing to have her children see billboards that cast her in a specious light.

"They could say that I was a party to the dismissals because I think it was the need of the hour. We didn't have another choice. That would be alright, because it's the truth. But I wasn't laughing, wasn't partying, wasn't dancing," Arison told a friend a few days ago.

In deciding to personally confront the Histadrut, Arison became not only a symbol of the struggle against Bank Hapoalim, but the symbol of the wealthy, satiated Israel that is far removed from any existential concerns, at a time when more and more Israelis feel insecure at work, and are not able to make it to the end of the month. The chances of emerging intact from such a contest, as any PR novice knows, are next to nil.

Many people find it hard to understand why a woman who had always been shy and retiring about business matters and who had abundant opportunities to gain public exposure in more complimentary contexts, chose to gain it on such an emotionally charged issue as the firing of hundreds of workers. Didn't Arison realize this was a battle over image?

An Arison associate says the sad part of the story is that her joining in the struggle has created an image that is diametrically opposed to what she really is.

She is not driven by a lust for power, but she threatened the media with an unprecedented $10 million lawsuit. She is not conceited, but she presented the wealthy as people without whom there would be no economy in Israel. She is extremely sensitive to human suffering, and has contributed $250 million to hundreds of institutions, organizations and needy individuals, but her stand against the dismissed employees portrays her as heartless.

Shelly-shocked

She preaches tolerance and cultural dialogue, but her PR man launched a scathing attack on journalist Shelly Yachimovich. Incidentally, Rahav says that his letter lambasting Yachimovich was not sent with Arison's knowledge, and had she known about it, she would have prevailed on him not to send it.

A look at Arison's Bank Hapoalim investment reveals that it is giving her little reason to laugh either. Along with the Dankner family and his American partners, her father bought 43 percent of the bank, including voting control, for $1.37 billion. The transaction took place according to a company value of $3.2 billion. At present, the bank is valued in the stock exchange at only $1.6 billion, or fifty percent of its value five years ago.

Over the years, Hapoalim has distributed dividends to shareholders for about NIS 2 billion, but this does not change the fact that Arison has seen the value of the investment sharply eroded. Arison Investments owns 20.7 percent of Bank Hapoalim, meaning that the company has lost about $200 million (deducting dividends received) on her investment in Bank Hapoalim.

At this stage, the investment by Arison and her partners could be described as a failure, but majority owners of the bank say they believe in the bank, and view it as a good asset and a long-term investment.

Two years ago, there were widespread rumors that Shari Arison was interested in liquidating her investments in Israel. Actually, she even announced she would sell Shikun U'Binui, but quickly changed her mind. At the time, Arison was fed up with her business activities in Israel, and was even considering hanging a "Gone to Miami" sign on her front door. Since then, however, she has been persuaded by her friends that she plays an important role in the Israeli economy, in both the social and business realms. She decided to build up her business here, and devote herself to it.

At last month's news conference, Arison was asked if she had plans to sell Bank Hapoalim. "I'm not selling anything," she said, "because I care about Israel. Given the serious condition of the economy, I would certainly not do any such thing. In the future, maybe in a year or two, when the economy recovers, I would consider my moves in accordance with the business climate."

Arison came into possession of her father's businesses after his death in October 1999. At first, there was little harmony between her and the family's Israel business manager, Shlomo Nehama. After a few months, with both parties making an effort, the relationship between them was smoothed out, and their associates now describe it as "excellent."

"They are closer than ever, consult one another on a daily basis and feel they are partners walking the same path. Shari is involved in every decision of the bank, and recognizes the fact that Nehama is the lead player in all of the group's businesses and the bank," they say.

One source who knows Arison well says she could have easily reached the same conclusion as Erwin Eisenberg, who liquidated his family investments in Israel after his father Shaul's death. "But Shari feels connected to Israel, it's her home. It is important to her to contribute to the economy and society in Israel, so she makes efforts to preserve her business empire here."