Powerful and Influential, Meridor Family Also Tries Hard to Stay Clean

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Finance Ministry budget department director Shaul Meridor, December 31, 2019
Finance Ministry budget department director Shaul Meridor, December 31, 2019Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The extended Meridor family – parents Dan and Leora, their children Mattan, Shaul, Hamutal and Avishai, and 12 grandchildren – spent the last weekend of August up north. The mood was good and everyone was enjoying the family time, but Shaul seemed preoccupied, say people close to the family.

Now it appears that it was then, surrounded by his supportive family, that Shaul made one of the toughest decisions of his life. On Sunday, a few hours after he returned from vacation, he denounced Finance Minister Yisrael Katz and quit his job as treasury budget chief. In a three-page letter to Katz, Meridor wrote: “The finance minister is doing things that should not be done and that were never done here in the past.” The letter was the culmination of weeks of increasingly bitter disputes between Katz and top ministry officials that eventually grew ugly and personal.

Katz, who rejected all the accusations, didn’t confine his response to Shaul Merdior alone but attacked the Meridor family. “Shaul has returned to the family roots of hostility and hatred toward Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud,” Katz said in an interview on Reshet Bet radio.

He was referring to Dan Meridor’s declaration that he would never vote for a Likud led by Netanyahu because of what he considers the anti-democratic trends alive in the party.

The father wasn’t the only one who was entangled in the son’s resignation. Some reporters received a copy of Shaul’s resignation letter from Mattan Meridor, Shaul’s older brother, a prominent attorney and head of antitrust and competition at the top law firm Agmon Rosenberg Hacohen & Company.

Younger brother Avishai, an actor with the Cameri Theater, joined in, too, with a tweet late at night. “At least now I’m not the only one in the family who’s unemployed.” The tweet received over 3,000 likes and hundreds of shares, including by sister Hamutal, a high-tech executive. It drew a tongue-in-cheek public reply from Shaul: “You’re furloughed and will be back in the theater before you know it. How about letting me have a little attention for one day?”

Mattan MeridorCredit: Yoram Reshef

“Contrary to what people may think, there’s hardly any talk at home about work,” says a person close to the family. “Avishai is generally the funny one, the clown, and the siblings all like to joke around together and sometimes they sing and play music together.”

To build and be built

Another person who knows the family says: “They’re part of that Jerusalem group that lives by the ethos, ‘We came to the land to build and be built in it.’ They know how to succeed, they have lots of ties with people and find themselves on boards of directors and the like. They’ve really achieved prominent positions.”

The Meridors are one of Israel’s most distinguished families, starting with Eliyahu Meridor, a longtime political associate of Menachem Begin in the Irgun and Herut party, which he represented in the Knesset, and Ra’anana Meridor, who taught the classics at Hebrew University. His children include Dan and Sallai, a former Jewish Agency chairman and Israeli ambassador to the United States.

For years the Meridor family members have confidently pursued their individual careers along parallel paths, being careful not to give any impression of conflicts of interest.

“The children in the Meridor family grew up into a family ethos in which you don’t use the name of the distinguished family,” says a person close to the family. “Avishai, for example, introduced himself for years using only his first name. Even though he has a master’s degree in public policy, he often says it is easier to develop a career in areas that are not connected to his father.”

Sometimes they have indeed paid a price for their virtue but they aren’t always able to keep to their own high standards.

Dan Meridor Credit: Emil Salman

Dan Meridor, 73, a lawyer and former Likud justice and finance minister, is now seen as one of the major anti-Netanyahu voices among former leaders. Throughout his political career, he was considered a clean politician who fought corruption. In 1995 he was recognized with an award from the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, in part for his readiness to confront Netanyahu during the latter’s first term as prime minister, when Meridor was finance minister.

“Netanyahu isn’t in the same league as Begin, there’s no comparison. Begin was a historic leader. But like they say – the cemeteries are full of people who were irreplaceable,” Dan Meridor said an interview with Markerweek a little over a year ago.

Leora Meridor, 72, is a well-respected economist whose past positions include head of research at Bank of Israel, head of credit at First International Bank of Israel, chairwoman of Bezeq International and of the Tel Aviv University executive council. She has also sat on the board of leading companies like Osem, Gilat Satellite Networks, Teva and Alrov Israel.

Mattan, 46, is the eldest son. After earning a master’s degree in law at the London School of Economics, he landed a position with Zvi Agmon’s firm and is now a senior partner, after a brief period when he struck out on his own. As head of the antitrust practice, his clients have included companies like Delek Group, Noble Energy, Israel Chemicals, Shufersal and Cellcom Israel.

Leora MeridorCredit: Emil Salman

Shaul, 44, has held various positions at the Finance Ministry, including deputy budget director with responsibility for the infrastructure sector. In 2013 he left the civil service for two years and worked for several months for a renewable energy company. He returned to the civil service when then-Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz offered him a position as director general of his ministry. From there, Shaul Meridor returned to the finance ministry, as the budget chief.

Hamutal, 40, heads the Israeli operations for Palantir, the big-data company controlled by PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel. Palantir is wrapped in secrecy, with many clients in the homeland security sector. The company helps governments in data mining for dealing with the coronavirus crisis. Before working for Palantir, Hamutal managed the web intelligence business unit of Verint.

After seven years as a combat navigator in the Air Force, Avishai, 35, decided to fulfill his life’s dreams and become an actor. Avishai has said the person who pushed him into acting was his grandmother, Ra’anana Meridor, who told him he had made a mistake when he had earlier given up on the theater. He studied at Seminar Hakibbutzim Teachers College in Tel Aviv and is considered to be a rising star. He is not involved in politics, though in 2015 he posted on Facebook that the Likud he grew up on has “passed from this world” and had become a symbol of racism, ultra-nationalism, ignorance and bullying. He has given up his regular seats as a fan of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team at Teddy Stadium in the capital to follow the Beitar Nordiya club instead.

Hamutal MeridorCredit: Ofer Vaknin

Because many in the family work in the public sector or in companies that touch on it, conflicts of interest became almost impossible to evade. The case that drew the most public attention occurred between Mattan and Shaul over the natural gas framework agreement. Mattan represented the energy companies, and Shaul sat on the Tzemach Committee, which was preparing recommendations on natural gas export policy. “Something like that couldn’t happen anywhere normal – when a brother of someone who represents 100% of the market sits on a committee to examine the issue of gas exports,” says a former senior treasury official.

During the committee’s work, Shaul pushed to increase gas export quotas. Other committee members disagreed, saying the government’s priority should be to conserve natural gas for domestic consumption – in other words, to place limits on gas exports.

When Shaul left the Finance Ministry in 2013, he took a one-year break, which some say was due to criticism of other former senior treasury officials who had quickly taken jobs in the private sector. When the year was up, he served for a short time as the CEO of a renewable energy company. But very soon a phone call arrived that called him back to public service: Steinitz offered him the post of Energy Ministry director general. “Shaul called Mattan to tell him about the offer and they both knew that Shaul wouldn’t refuse the job. It was an important offer for him and an opportunity to work in the government. In the conversation, they realized the two would be forced to find a solution and work it out,” says the source.

Avishai Meridor Credit: David Bachar

And that’s what happened. Because Mattan handled antitrust issues for the U.S. company Noble Energy, which has stakes in Israel’s two biggest gas fields, Shaul announced he would recuse himself from anything connected with the natural gas framework – albeit only those concerning its implementation. Shaul’s conflict-of-interest agreement in the ministry – which prevented him from involving himself in other areas because of his older brother’s work, had a letter from Mattan appended, which was intended for Steinitz. In it, Mattan committed not to represent clients in front of the Energy Ministry nor involve himself in natural gas exploration and production issues without informing his brother.

The conflict-of-interest avoidance mechanism the brothers reached stood the usual practice on its head: It’s the civil servant who must avoid matters that those close to him could have an interest in; in this case, it was the private sector attorney who agreed to limit his activity.

Nonetheless, they still ran into problems. For example, Mattan represented Noble while his brother Shaul remained outside the picture. But immediately after the gas framework was approved, Shaul was appointed to head the team in charge of implementing it.

As time went on, the Justice Ministry hardened its position on the conflict-of-interest issue between the brothers. The decisive meeting was held in the Justice Ministry and Mattan attended, as did deputy attorney general Dina Zilber. The atmosphere was tense. Zilber told Mattan Meridor that none of Agmon’s clients could have dealings with the Energy Ministry, a requirement that would have made Mattan a burden on his firm.

“It was clear to Mattan that he wouldn’t do anything that harmed his brother’s public career,” says a person close to the family. “They tried to propose other models ... but it didn’t work. Mattan was forced to get up and leave – it was a shock for him.” Mattan left the firm in September 2016 and open his own law office. In an announcement he released at the time, he made it clear that he left because he didn’t want to harm his brother’s career.

“The position of the Justice Ministry is excessive,” says the person close to the Meridor family. “They claimed that even if Mattan had provided catering services to the Agmon law firm, it would be a conflict of interest. If it [had been a man on the street] in the legal test, or Mrs. Cohen from Hadera, they would not have been so tough with them.”

Avoidable problem

But others say it wasn’t tough enough. “We now know that Delek and Noble violated the gas framework and coordinated prices. All that could have been avoided,” says a former senior treasury official who was involved in the natural gas framework. “For example, the Energy Ministry could have acknowledged that gas interests had to be split up – completely separate ownership between [Yitzhak] Tshuva’s Delek and Noble, and create direct competition between [the gas fields] Tamar and Leviathan. I can’t say that if Shaul and Mattan hadn’t been party to the matter, Benjamin Netanyahu would have decided otherwise and not approved the framework, because in the end he set the matter in motion and said, ‘What I want will happen.’

“But the regulatory atmosphere in which senior officials are close to one another and are ‘mixed together’ violates the conflict [of interest wall] between the professional staff and the politicians. This is because even when the politicians listen to pressure groups, if the professionals are united against a specific move, in the end the politicians give in.”

Others disagree, saying Mattan’s decision to leave his law firm was not a simple one. Says a competitor of his, “I think that he took upon himself all the restrictions that he needed to and did all he could not to place anyone in any difficulty. I saw with my own eyes how he gave up cases for it, and also later, every step and move was taken with caution.”

Mattan and Shaul are not the only ones in the family whose careers were on a collision course until one of them stepped back. In July 2005, the cabinet approved a proposal by then-Industry Minister Ehud Olmert that antitrust commissioners need not be lawyers – as long as they were economists by training. There was speculation at the time that Olmert sought the change so that Leora Meridor, who is not a lawyer, could qualify for the job.

In any case, a few months later, Meridor withdrew her candidacy out of fear of a conflict of interest with Mattan, who was just beginning his career as an antitrust specialist. According to media reports, Leora informally approached the Justice Ministry about how they might solve this conflict of interest, but when that didn’t succeed, she withdrew her candidacy. A different version of the story holds that Olmert never intended to appoint her to the post and was preparing the ground for another candidate, Ronit Kan, who was not a lawyer either – and was only using Leora Meridor as a stalking horse.

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