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Eliezer Fishman, whose business empire includes the carrier Golden Lines, denied last week that he'd met with Industry Minister Ehud Olmert about competition in the long-distance market. "I did not meet with him or walk with him," he said in a special interview. "But I'm not worried. If they decide to open the market to the cellular carriers, Golden Lines will close."

His denial followed reports that Olmert, who also handles the communications portfolio, was considering prohibiting Israel's cellular carriers from competing in the long-distance service market. Letting them compete could lead to hundreds of job cuts at the current three long-distance carriers, Olmert fears. It would seem that even without meeting or talking, Olmert and Fishman understand each other very well.

The long-distance service market was supposed to open to competition two years ago. The Communications Ministry's professional echelon had done its homework, talked with all the entities involved and wholeheartedly supported the move.

Moreover, the long-distance carriers won their operating licenses six years ago, knowing that their exclusivity would expire in four years. When they first started to operate, they competed fiercely. In the last three years, their competitiveness had stabilized somewhat, allowing the companies to widen their margins and make a few hundred million shekels in profits. The assessment is bolstered by the companies' profitability, and the comparisons the Communications Ministry bureaucrats have made with similar companies abroad. These are the same bureaucrats who proposed the unpopular idea of dismantling the Communications Ministry itself, where they themselves work, and replacing it with an apolitical authority.

Olmert does not concur

But Ehud Olmert tends not to agree with that professional echelon. The likelihood that the ministry will be dismantled seems smaller than the chance that it will remain another feather in his ministerial cap.

As for the long-distance service market, Olmert has no new data; if there were new data, the professional echelon itself would be reevaluating its position. But Olmert believes what he has in hand is a threat to long-distance carriers - heavens to Betsy - a threat culminating in (shudder!) job cuts. After all, isn't the primary function of Israel's ministers to avert and destroy any possible threat to Israel's privately held companies, lest any harm come to a hair on the heads of their workers?

To follow Olmert's train of logic, it would have been necessary to rethink allowing Partner Communications to compete in the cellular market. After all, the cellular arena had been competitive before Partner's advent. Also, allowing Yes satellite TV company to compete with the cable companies would have been wrong-headed, and allowing other companies to compete with Bezeq in certain spheres is a complete disaster, as it led to thousands of job cuts at the national phone company.

Olmert as minister of industry has underneath him the Antitrust Authority. Based on his stance that competition is a bad thing, since it leads to job cuts, perhaps the minister should consider abolishing the Antitrust Authority. It apparently has no role to play.