Taking Stock / Have we lost our minds?
We've never had one like this before.
It weighs $2.8 billion, most of it in cash. It's a close friend of Bill Clinton and Rupert Murdoch. It quotes Israeli comedians and now it turns out it's an actor, an entertainer, with a smooth tongue as sharp as a whip.
Mere moments into his interview with reporter Kobi Meidan at the "wealth-government-telecommunications" conference at the Dead Sea, Haim Saban had the audience in his pocket.
Two or three anecdotes about Tel Aviv of the 1960s, like his appearance at the club belonging to Rafi Shauli and Arnon Milchan where they "segregated the sacred and the profane, the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim," a tale of his bankruptcy when the Yom Kippur war broke out, and his use of salty colloquialisms such as "bullshit" - it quickly became clear that this wasn't just a billionaire buying Bezeq, it was one of us.
Beyond his accent and slang, it was through what he actually had to say that Saban made it crystal clear how much he belongs to the Israeli norm in his approach to government.
Asked if he thinks politicians and elected representatives could withstand his terrific economic and political might, he quoted Hagashash Hachiver, Israel's all-time favorite comic trio. Literally: "Tell me, has your kumquat gone mad?" Or, in plain English - "have you lost your mind?"
Maybe the kumquat is deadly sane. Half of Saban's jokes were at the expense of Israeli regulation. The high (or low) point was when he nonchalantly called the deputy attorney general of Israel, Davida Lachman-Messer, "the lady who ruins all your lives."
Would he dare to call a top-ranking figure at the Deparment of Justice in the United States, which has become Saban's home turf - "the lady who ruins all your lives," in a public forum in the presence of management from dozens of top-tier companies?
Possibly, but probably not. We are in Israel after all and Saban is the richest and most powerful person to ever do business here. He could buy any of the biggest companies in town with a snap of the fingers. He can unilaterally comment that he wants to buy a major newspaper. He can, with utter nonchalance and vast comic charm, rip to shreds anybody standing in his way.
Saban's entry could bring a breath of fresh, different air into the local business arena. He brings new money, daring, entrepreneurial spirit and familiarity with the greatest people of the international business and media worlds.
Bezeq under Saban and his partner, international fund Apax, could become a much more advanced, competitive player. The scuffle between the giants - Saban's Bezeq, Cellcom under Nochi Dankner, Partner Communications under Hutchison Whampoa and the cable trio under Yitzhak Tshuva and Noni Mozes, could prove a boon to consumers.
But for all that competition to benefit the consumer, not to be at his expense, regulatory intervention is needed. Not bureaucratic intervention but regulatory intervention, which is, as free market guru Adam Smith put it, essential to prevent monopolies and cartels of businessmen from abusing the consumer.
Saban knows this well. He hails from a land of regulation and competition, a country blessed with strong regulators and powerful consumer organizations that fight monopolies and big business.
He must know of the structural revolutions that the New York attorney general, Eliot Spitzer, forced down the throat of big business in the last three years, for the benefit of consumers.
He also knows that Israel has no such organizations or regulators with that kind of power.
It would be disappointing if Saban were to adopt the tired texts constantly spouted by our local businessmen, whipping them out every time regulators defy them and refuse to dance to their tune.
Saban is right that Israeli regulation is one of the worst in the world, but not because it's too powerful. On the contrary, it's weak, defensive, cowardly. It suffers from myopia, inconsistency, lack of coordination between the various regulators and absence of clear strategy.
But delegitimizing regulation is a bad solution that will not make it better, only perpetuate its weakness.
Saban again said that he had reached a decision to leave most of his fortune to the community, with only "a few pennies" going to his children. That is fairly common practice in the U.S., if not here.
If Saban would like to start contributing to the community right away, while he's still alive, and not only through generous donations, he could bring a fresh breeze of legitimacy to competition and to the regulation that enables competition to exist. He could change the public dialogue on economics for the better.
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