"It's definitely a possibility that over the coming year, if the opportunity arises, we will sell our shares in Bank Leumi," Finance Ministry Director General Yarom Ariav told TheMarker last week.
Ariav said the state doesn't want to hold on to its stake in the bank and will find the time and place to sell it. "The crisis isn't helping us," he said. "Lately there haven't been any sales or purchases of banks. There have been rescue plans, programs to help banks or bank deals in trouble, but at the end of the day we'll find a way to sell our holdings in the bank."
Speaking at the TheMarker conference in New York City, Ariav addressed the public storm generated by remarks by Bank Hapoalim controlling shareholder Shari Arison about her clairvoyant abilities - and their effect on the way the bank is run. He also commented on a related issue raised by her remarks: Should the banks be given into public hands rather than being run by a single person?
"I have no abilities to communicate with spirits, and I am simply amazed at people who do," Ariav said, but he added that "It's good for banks to be in private hands. There is the question concerning the banks' control core shares, which has not been dealt with thoroughly, but overall I don't think the government should own banks. In any event it should be remembered that there is a public element to the banks."
At the conference Ariav spoke of the contribution made by the Israeli character to coping with the economic crisis.
"The question is how to turn the crisis into an opportunity. We Israelis, with our rich experience with crises, can respond more quickly than other economies."
Ariav also linked the common Israeli expression yihiyeh beseder ("it'll be all right") to Israel's ability to cope with the crisis. "That term expresses the difficulty of planning for tomorrow, but also the ability to improvise. If an Israeli in the desert finds a can of food but doesn't have a can opener he'll find a way to open it, despite the fact that he got lost in the first place due to lack of planning. Our shortcoming can turn into an advantage and create opportunity out of crisis."
Ariav said that Israel's deep familiarity with crisis "doesn't mean we're crisis management experts, but rather that we don't give up easily. When you're accustomed to a war every decade you don't get scared by names such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. We have a 'track record' of flexible people with quick reflexes, and that enables us to turn crises into opportunities.
"When everything surrounding us is unstable, and the global economy is shaking, there are two types of people: those who freeze in place and wait for the storm to pass, and those who take advantage of the opportunity and respond quickly. I believe that most Israelis are in the second group because they have to be in order to survive. Taking advantage of our our strong foundations will make us stronger than ever."
Why did you decide to leave the Finance Ministry? Do you feel politics impedes the ministry's activities?
"I'm ending my term. It's important to create dynamism in positions in the Finance Ministry such as the director general, the budgets director or the accountant general, to make room for other, good people, who may also come from the public sector. What this ministry needs is new blood and dynamism in order to do the right things."
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