Arison Must Come to Her Senses

With its terrifying power, Bank Hapoalim wields considerable influence over certain news outlets. It has a substantial capacity to mislead the public. But you can't fool all of the people all of the time.

Since they are good Israelis, most Israeli tycoons like to complain. Their pockets are full, but so are their bellies. They complain about the media, the politicians and the civil servants. They have gripes about begrudging attitudes, populism and bureaucracy. Some of them feel persecuted by the gossip columnists, the paparazzi, the legal profession, the officials, the nosy television researchers and the busybodies. It's hard to be rich in this country, say the rich. It's even harder to be an Israeli billionaire.

In a certain sense, the magnates are right. Many of them boast amazing life stories and impressive achievements. Many of them generate thousands of jobs. The captains of industry advance the economy, increase the national wealth and provide Israel with the economic-technological progress that sustains it.

But despite all this, they sometimes encounter a bitter attitude. They are engulfed by disapproval. Self-righteous, post-socialist discourse sees their capital as tainted. The excessive suspicion about the relationship between the super rich and government often leads to unfair treatment of some of Israel's wealthy people.

This is not the case with Shari Arison. She did not build up an exemplary enterprise as Stef Wertheimer and Michael Strauss did, or get rich with her own intelligence like Gil Shwed and Kobi and Judith Richter. Nor was she a trailblazing entrepreneur like the Ofer brothers. All she did was inherit from her father the overly centralized control of an overly large bank, which was too hastily privatized in the 1990s.

Bank Hapoalim is a draconian power hub. Few banks in the world have a weight in the local economy like Bank Hapoalim's in the Israeli economy. So when Arison took over the bank's controlling stake she assumed a leading role in Israel's economy and society. She did not become influential in Israel by virtue of her qualifications or actions.

Noblesse oblige. Capital oblige, and power, too. The owner of a bank's controlling interest must know that a bank is not an ordinary private business. It is not daddy's business but the trustee of the people who deposit their money in it, especially when the bank is the country's biggest. Especially when the bank is owned not by the controlling shareholder, but by the public.

Sadly, Arison does not understand these basic facts. She is not a bad or corrupt person. On the contrary, there is something touching about her spiritualism, something moving about her deep religious faith that comes into play in private meetings as well.

But the people who have accounts in Bank Hapoalim did not deposit their money in peace that begins from within, and the shareholders did not put their trust in executives who put their trust in God's grace.

The attempt to divert the Bank Hapoalim debate to procedural and directorship issues is misleading. The problem is much deeper and broader. In the last two years Hapoalim has turned from a very stable to a less stable bank. The supervisor of banks at the Bank of Israel warned the bank's heads time after time that they were acting irresponsibly. Time after time the supervisor stopped the bank's executives from making reckless moves. The Bank of Israel showed Bank Hapoalim one yellow card after another.

But Arison's bank did not do what every respectable bank in the world would have done. It refused to heed the banking regulator and continued acting rowdily. Under Arison's leadership, the bank has not grasped the basic concepts and obligations of a decent, conservative banking establishment.

With its terrifying power, Bank Hapoalim wields considerable influence over certain news outlets. It has a substantial capacity to mislead the public. But you can't fool all of the people all of the time. The bank's board of directors is now staging a mutiny against the Israeli government and its institutions.

Arison must therefore come to her senses. For her own sake, for the bank's sake and the sake of its account holders, she must finally behave like a responsible banker. As the holder of the controlling interest, she must understand her moral and professional duties and act accordingly.