Courting the Workers

National Infrastructures Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer looks at the calendar and pales. In another three months, he will be up for election - and he doesn't have much of a chance.

National Infrastructures Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer looks at the calendar and pales. In another three months, he will be up for election - and he doesn't have much of a chance.

The Labor Party primaries will take place on June 28, and the surveys show that Vice Premier Shimon Peres is the big winner. Behind him, by a substantial margin, are MK Ehud Barak and Minister Without Portfolio Matan Vilnai, with Ben-Eliezer and MK Amir Peretz, head of the Histadrut labor federation, bringing up the rear.

But wait a minute, there's still a chance. The surveys were conducted among "Labor voters" - in other words, those who told the pollsters that they had voted Labor. But they will not be the ones to determine who will be the next chair, because the Labor primaries will be conducted among party members, those who register and pay membership dues - and that's a different group, whose composition can be influenced. And that is exactly what Ben-Eliezer is working on these days, the days of the registration drive.

The political niche has long since been taken over by Peres. The military niche belongs to Barak. The social niche belongs to Peretz. What's left for him? The sector of the large workers committees. And they suit his goal perfectly. There are tens of thousands of workers (and their relatives), who earn medium and high salaries, who have no problem paying the membership dues. Although in the general elections it can be assumed that some of them will vote for the Likud - who cares? The main thing now is the primaries.

In the context of the "workers committees" strategy, Ben-Eliezer fired in all directions this week. "Privatizing the Israel Electric Corporation is a horrifying idea, it's like privatizing the Israel Defense Forces," he said. What is the connection between a business corporation and an army? After that, he tried to remove the reform in electricity services from the Economic Arrangements Law. Regarding the Mekorot Water Company, he said that it must remain under government ownership. As for the refineries, he said, "It has not been proved that the division into two competing plants will lead to a reduction in prices." The large committees heard his words and applauded: Finally, here is a minister who understands us, who will remove the evil edict of streamlining and economy.

Mekorot has already undergone a process of division, but Ben-Eliezer wants to torpedo the move by appointing a joint chair for all the companies. That will prevent competition, and will also prevent a reduction in water prices. All the studies indicate that competition between the two refineries (Haifa and Ashdod) will lead to streamlining and to a reduction in the prices of fuel, but Ben-Eliezer listens only to the workers committee.

Regarding the Israel Electric Corporation, Ben-Eliezer is somewhat confused. No privatization is planned for now. The only plan is to split the corporation into three subsidiaries: for production, conduction and distribution. In the area of production and distribution, competition with the IEC will be possible, but in the area of conduction, the IEC will remain a monopoly. The division is supposed to take effect in March 2006, and only during the second stage, many years from now, will it be possible to speak of bringing in partners or selling some of the shares on the stock market.

If the reform is carried out, there could be a dramatic improvement in the corporation, as there was in the Bezeq communications company - where there was a tremendous improvement in service and a reduction in prices (on mobile phones and for international calls) after it emerged from under the government apron. But Ben-Eliezer is opposed to dividing the IEC - because that's the wish of the committee, which is trying to maintain its power. If, as a result of Ben-Eliezer's opposition, the entire public will pay a higher price for electricity, so be it. The main thing is to keep his fingers in the primaries.

Nor does the workers committee like the new chair of the corporation, Shlomo Rothman. He is too professional and straight. Proof of this is the fact that he wants to carry out the reform. That is why Ben-Eliezer attempted this week to threaten him: "There have been precedents where the chair of a government company didn't last. Whether he ends his term depends only on him." In other words, if you want to survive, Rothman, do what I say, or, to be more accurate, what the committee tells me to do.

At the same opportunity, Ben-Eliezer is making another mistake. He said he intends to decide who will be the next CEO of the IEC, and he is not pleased with the fact that Rothman is involved in formulating criteria for the choice of a CEO, "because it's not the business of the board of directors to be involved in that."

That's really the limit. The Companies Law specifically states that the board of directors is the body that chooses the CEO. That's how it should be. The CEO, after all, has to carry out the policy of the board. Although in a government company, the decision of the board has to be confirmed by the two ministers involved - the minister of national infrastructures and the finance minister - the choice itself must be made by the board of directors.

Ben-Eliezer wants to appoint a CEO who will owe his job to Ben-Eliezer, someone who will oppose the reform, who will torpedo it. If Rothman resigns as a result, Ben-Eliezer is guaranteed that the workers committee will engrave his name in gold letters on the chimney of the Reading power station, and he will immediately receive several thousand votes in the primaries.