From Riches to Riches

It's a difficult time for billionaire Shari Arison. Instead of hearing praise for her philanthropy, she finds herself trying to justify the massive layoffs at Bank Hapoalim, in a PR effort gone badly wrong

Rich people surround themselves with a protective wall to keep unwanted contacts away. They have personal assistants, legal advisers, business managers and publicists whose job it is to act as a buffer between them and reality, which can be unpleasant at times.

From this perspective, Shari Arison is no different from other moguls with vast fortunes. Her media consultant is mega-publicist Rani Rahav. As it turned out, it was Rahav, the person whose job it is to burnish Arison's public image, that was most responsible for causing many people to see her as a wicked witch indifferent to the plight of others.

People who know Arison say that it was Rahav who advised her to hold the press conference about a month ago where she offered to explain why the mass layoffs at Bank Hapoalim were necessary. The decision about the layoffs was actually made by the bank's administration, headed by chairman Shlomo Nehama, who himself holds 3.5 percent of the bank's stock. Nehama would have seemed to be the natural candidate to stand at the forefront of this PR effort. His father was once a bank employee and it wasn't until 12 years ago that Nehama joined the ranks of Israel's wealthiest. His explanations might have been accepted with greater understanding than those of one of the world's richest women, who attained this status solely by virtue of having been born to the right father.

Arison expressed regret about the layoffs. But her remarks were perceived more as hypocrisy than empathy. It certainly didn't help matters when she characterized management's decision as an example of "national responsibility." Those poorly-received remarks only seemed to demonstrate that for the country's wealthiest, national responsibility sometimes calls for an increase in unemployment and social inequality.

The press conference led people to perceive Shari Arison as the ultimate representative of the uncaring rich - a group of people who are certainly very easy to hate, especially on the eve of an election in which Histadrut chairman Amir Peretz, champion of the disadvantaged, is a candidate.

Arison's public appearance couldn't have come at a better time for Peretz and his One Nation party. Exploitation, social injustice, poverty, unemployment and so on are abstract concepts that don't photograph easily. Arison, on the other hand, photographs very well and she was quickly turned into the symbol of all the economic ills and injustices in Israeli society.

"We chose to focus on Arison herself because she is the one who came out before the media to justify - and with lame excuses - the fact that her bank, which earned $1 billion, had to lay off 900 workers in such a difficult period - all because of `national responsibility,'" says Histadrut spokesman Avinoam Magen. "I ask you: What kind of national responsibility are the children of that unemployed worker who can no longer support his family and has lost his dignity as a result of being laid off going to learn? How do unemployment, poverty and greater social inequality contribute to national responsibility?"

The slogan used in the Histadrut campaign, "Shari Arison is laughing," did not amuse Arison in the least. She threatened Poster Media, the company that put up the Histadrut billboards, with a $10 million libel suit. The fact that Arison indirectly owns 6.4 percent of Poster Media (through her partnership in Gaon Ahzakot) didn't hurt. Poster Media took down the signs.

Journalist Shelly Yachimovich thought these threats of a lawsuit provided an excellent example of how the rich and successful are able to arrange things to their liking, in this case by firing such a large number of employees and then silencing public criticism of the move. In her personal segment on the Channel Two program "Ulpan Shishi," Yachimovich railed against Arison's conduct, prompting Rani Rahav to spring into action again. That night, he sat down and wrote an angry and derisive letter attacking Yachimovich. The recurring theme of the six-page missive, written in the tone of a child throwing a tantrum in the sandbox, was that Shelly Yachimovich is "bad."

According to Rahav, Yachimovich is the mean woman who's spoiling everyone's party, unlike Shari Arison. "If it weren't for [Arison], there wouldn't be a State of Israel," he wrote.

Had this media adviser had a media adviser of his own to consult, he might have put the letter away in a drawer, or at least corrected some of its blatant grammatical errors. But Rahav made sure that his letter was seen by hundreds of journalists and business leaders. He subsequently claimed that it was all his own doing and that Arison had no knowledge of it before it was sent out.

"Had she known, she'd have tried to stop me from sending the letter because it doesn't reflect Shari's way, which is to strive for peace and brotherhood," Rahav told Ha'aretz.

But the fact remains that Arison did not fire Rahav, rebuke him or disassociate herself in any way from his letter. On the contrary: A good friend of hers says that Arison was very touched by Rahav's devotion to her and that she has a very good relationship with him, at least as good as the relationship he had with the late Leah Rabin, with whom he was reputed to have got on famously.

The same friend says that Arison was very hurt by Yachimovich's remarks. "She doesn't usually watch television, but her [companion], Ofer [businessman Ofer Glazer] came in and turned on the TV and suddenly she hears Shelly Yachimovich talking about her like that. Shari carried on for half an hour and asked, `Why do I deserve this? What have I done that I should be talked about this way? All I ever want is to do only good for everyone.' That's why Rani Rahav wrote the letter to Yachimovich."

The essence of life

"Shari is a wonderful woman. She gets up in the morning and asks herself what she can do for Israel's sake," says Bank Hapoalim chairman Shlomo Nehama. There is plenty of evidence to back up his view. Like her father, Shari Arison is a considered a very big contributor to Israel. But unlike her father, whose extremely generous contributions were purely financial, Shari Arison also wants to contribute to the spiritual and cultural public discourse. "Her real dream is to bring peace," says a close friend. "First, the peace of each person within himself, then peace between people and finally peace between peoples and nations. That's why she founded the Mahut Hehayim (Essence of Life) organization."

The Mahut Hehayim offices are located on the first floor of 32 Shaul Hamelech Street in Tel Aviv. On the building's second floor are the offices of Matan, a foundation established by Arison to help the needy. On the third floor are the offices of the Ted Arison Family Foundation, which gives very large contributions to social and public projects.

Shari Arison is very "spiritual" in the New Age sense of the word. She became a vegan two years ago, after years of being vegetarian. The change in diet also seems to have done wonders for her appearance. She has lost 17 kilos over the past two years, in part with the help of a personal fitness trainer with whom she works out every morning in Hayarkon Park.

She is interested in all kinds of techniques for improving self-awareness and interpersonal communication. She has tried many workshops, courses and therapies over the years. She was inspired to start Mahut Hehayim by the personal coaching she underwent with her trainer, Tal Ronen, who helped her define her own "personal vision."

She decided to undergo this kind of personal coaching when she realized that she would one day be running her father's business interests in Israel.

"Even though her father hadn't planned at the time to give her his businesses in Israel, she instinctively knew that this was what he would eventually do," explains Arison's friend. "And she decided to undergo personal coaching, which is very common in the United States, in order to prepare herself for this and mainly because Shari is a person who doesn't believe that money is enough. She definitely thinks that one has to search for the meaning and content in life."

In contrast to her public image, Arison was not born with a silver spoon in her mouth. Her childhood was not all smooth sailing. It wasn't until she was a young woman that her father made his great fortune. She was never close with her father, who was demanding and hard to please. Until shortly before he died in 1999, he did not appreciate his daughter's business abilities or approve of her taste in men. Shari Arison's relationship with her only sibling, Micky, who is eight years older, was once described by their mother, Mina Sapir (now married to her second husband, Yekutiel Sapir, and living in Kfar Sava), as "mostly a business relationship."

Carnival time

Arison's great-grandparents on her father's side were among the founding families of Zikhron Yaakov. They arrived here from Romania in 1882. Their great-granddaughter, Shari, donated the aliyah museum to Zikhron Yaakov. Shari's grandfather, Meir, and Heinz Gretz were partners with Meir Dizengoff in a shipping company called M. Dizengoff and Co.

The Arison family lived on Angel Street in Tel Aviv. The eldest son, Theodore (Ted), was born in 1923, followed by two sisters, Aviva and Rina. When Dizengoff died in 1939, the entire company came into Gretz's possession. Meir Arison tried to fight for his share but died brokenhearted several years later at the age of 50. After graduating from the Gymnasia Herzliya high school, Ted Arison went to Beirut to study architecture at the American University there. When the War of Independence began, he enlisted in the Seventh Brigade and served as its liaison officer.

After the war, he tried unsuccessfully to found an independent shipping company. "I tried to establish an independent company. ZIM objected, and the government supported them," Ted Arison once said in an interview. "Golda [Meir] was talking about socialism then, and the workers' party didn't like my attempt to establish a private company. It made me angry that they would do this to me after I gave my blood for the state. I decided that I didn't want to get into another war, so I left."

With his wife Mina and their infant son, Micky, Arison moved to Miami and worked for a time as an air cargo supervisor for El Al. He tried to start a shipping company in Miami and then several companies in New York that handled customs fees, but none of these ventures were successful in the long run. Shari was born in 1958. When she was a teenager, her father ran into a childhood friend of his - Meshulam Riklis - who offered him the chance to buy - for just one dollar - a cruise ship that was heavily in debt. This ship became the basis for Carnival Cruise Lines, which grew into a fleet of dozens of ships and the principal source of the Arison family's wealth.

When Ted Arison became one of the world's wealthiest men, some very unflattering articles were published in the American press about the working conditions on his ships. According to these stories, Carnival Cruise hired many illegal aliens who were willing to work for starvation wages of $1.50 a day. The ships in the fleet flew the Liberian flag in order to avoid paying high taxes in the United States. Reports in the U.S. said that worries about taxes led Ted Arison to resettle in Israel.

Ted Arison arrived back in Israel at the end of 1991. His daughter and her family decided to move here at the same time, though her friends say the timing was entirely coincidental. "Shari always wanted to come back to Israel. She loved Israel and spent part of her childhood here, but the decision somehow kept getting put off - until the Gulf War," says her friend. "Then she felt that she could no longer stay far away from Israel. She came in late 1991 and has been here ever since."

Zionist pangs

By the time Shari Arison was born in New York, her parents' relationship had become very strained. Her mother was increasingly upset by her husband's growing list of failed business ventures. When Shari was nine, she came to stay with her aunt in Israel while her parents' divorce was finalized. The cousins lived in Tel Aviv and Shari attended the Har-Nevo elementary school in the northern part of the city. "It was very hard for her," says an acquaintance from that time. "She was in Israel without her parents. America seemed a lot further away then, and don't forget that no one got divorced in those days and suddenly that's what her parents were doing."

Six months after Shari came to Israel on her own, her mother arrived. Shari moved in with her mother and stayed with her until she was 12. Then her father and brother came for a visit and took her back with them to Ted Arison's house in Miami. Shortly after the divorce, Ted remarried.

Shari Arison went to high school in Miami, but not long before she was due to graduate, she became very homesick for Israel. She left her father's house, came to Israel, completed her bagrut exams and enlisted in the IDF. "I came to Israel because I was very Zionistic," she told Yedioth Ahronoth five years ago. But those feelings waned after she spent some time serving in the navy. She received an early discharge and returned to Miami.

Her father was a very rich man by then. He lived in a mansion, had a fleet of cars and even a private plane. His daughter decided she needed to learn a profession. To prepare herself for working in her father's business, she studied hotel and restaurant management, but cut her studies short when she fell in love with a Cuban officer named Jose Antonio Suarez who served on one of her father's ships. They married when she was 22 and had three children who are now 23, 19 and 18. Shari initiated divorce proceedings after six years of marriage, when the children were all very young.

On one of her frequent visits to Israel, before the divorce was final, Shari met Miki Dorsman, a former basketball player who was then working as professional basketball coach. Dorsman, eight years her junior, followed her back to Miami. They married in 1987 and divorced about six months ago. They have a 7-year-old daughter. Dorsman is not involved in the family businesses. He continued to do work as a basketball coach and with a large loan from the family, he created a perfume called "Cruise," which was sold on Carnival Cruise ships and did very well.

In 1991, the couple decided to return to Israel. They moved into a Gan Ha'ir penthouse in Tel Aviv and Dorsman bought the Hapoel Holon basketball team. He also started an investment company that closed some major deals worth between $30 and $40 million, including the purchase of 11 percent of Hadera Paper.

Shari Arison began running the Ted Arison Family Foundation. She told Yedioth Ahronoth that she decided to embark on her own business initiatives so people wouldn't say that she was just a spoiled kid whose father had given her a nice toy to play with. One venture was a joint project with Egged to build a chain of motels. Then she decided to buy the Movenpick franchise, explaining that she wanted to prove herself to her father "who saw me only as a mother who had to raise the kids. Now he sees that I can be both a good businesswoman and a good mother. It's important to me to be a good businesswoman, too. I love creativity, seeing something grow out of nothing."

Movenpick turned out to be a bad deal and after her father's death, Shari Arison decided to pull out of the project with Egged. As she told Ma'ariv: "When you've got billions, you don't deal with millions."

Heart and soul

Now that she has inherited billions from her father, Arison wouldn't express herself in quite the same way, say her friends. They say she purposely avoids ostentation. In an interview with Ma'ariv about a year ago, she said this about the house she built in the affluent community of Bnei Zion, near Ra'anana: "When I read in the papers that my house rivals that of the Ofer family [of shipping magnates], it drives me mad. Believe me, that in planning the house, I tried to ensure that it would appear modest when viewed from the road." Since her divorce, she has lived in the Bavli neighborhood of Tel Aviv. She spends weekends and holidays with the children in Bnei Zion, and she and her current companion socialize with about a dozen other couples.

"Shari doesn't feel at home anywhere," says one of her childhood friends. "In Israel, she feels American and in America, she always felt Israeli."

Ted Arison was one of Benjamin Netanyahu's biggest contributors. He gave the money for the Ariel Institute, a right-wing think tank. Shari Arison, however, is known as a leftist - "to the left of Labor, more in the direction of Meretz."

She was very wealthy when her father was still alive, but upon his death in late 1999, she became a billionaire. It's hard to say just how much she's worth. The Ma'ariv business supplement Asakim estimated her fortune last year at a little over $6 billion. Other estimates range from $3.5 to $7 billion. She was worth more before the American stock market plunged. Now she's worth a little less, but is still one of the richest people in the world.

The business empire she inherited from her father includes the Bank Hapoalim group, Shikun ve'Binui, about half of the Eurocom media company, Arison Technologies, and a little less than a third of Carnival Cruise Lines. Her share in the latter was estimated at $1.6 billion last year. "I had a lot of money for a lot of years," Arison told Ma'ariv. "It's true that I received a lot more money through the inheritance, but I act in accordance with certain values that I learned from my father. He taught me that money comes and goes."

Later in that same interview, she said: "I think that my wealth is a gift that I received in order to do good things. For me, business and philanthropy are all the same thing: It's all a matter of giving and receiving."

Most of her philanthropy is accomplished through the Arison Family Foundation. The foundation has $600 million in investments and distributes money from the interest to different projects and institutions (mostly in Israel) every year. In recent years, the largest donations made by the foundation have been in the health field - $30 million to Ichilov Hospital, $10 million for the neurobiology center at the Weizmann Institute and $1.5 million to Sheba Medical Center. The foundation also gave approximately $20 million to education-related projects: the Ariel Institute, the Aliyah Museum in Zikhron Yaakov, the Multidisciplinary Center in Herzliya, the Computer Science center at the Technion and the Holocaust Memorial Museum in the United States. Six million dollars went to a new campus for the Tel Aviv Arts School and $3 million for the Arison Music Conservatory in Tel Aviv.

In 2002, Matan contributed $8 million to various non-profit organizations. This amount has been steadily increasing over the past couple of years (from $2.4 million in 2000 to $5.4 million in 2001) to the present level.

Shari Arison's admirers point out that she didn't have to live in Israel. She could easily have run her business concerns from anyplace else. She came and settled here because she wanted to help Israel, they say. "If there were a few more Shari Arisons in Israel, our economy would look different," Shlomo Nehama told Ha'aretz last week.

Arison's employees have been regular contributors to her charitable causes. She never explicitly requested it, but Bank Hapoalim workers, led by former workers' committee chairman Arik Pinto, were regular donors to Matan. A similar thing happened at other companies owned by Arison. "Arik Pinto is very enthusiastic about Matan's activity," Arison told Ma'ariv. When Pinto left his previous post, he was appointed director of the bank's human resources department - a very senior position. Hints in the business daily Globes about an overly close relationship between the heads of the workers' committees at Bank Hapoalim and the bank's administration - apropos the surprising effort by the current chairman of the workers' union, Charlie Amzaleg, to defend his employers on the matter of the layoffs - led, as expected, to threats of a libel suit against Globes and reporters who work there.