Israel’s Most Influential People

From politicians to innovators, take a look at the movers and shakers deciding the future of the country’s nearly 9 million citizens

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Benjamin Netanyahu,  Aviv Kochavi, Benny Gantz and Ron Huldai.
Benjamin Netanyahu, Aviv Kochavi, Benny Gantz and Ron Huldai.Credit: Debbie Hill/AP, Moti Milrod, Gantz Heidi Levine/AP
TheMarker
TheMarker

For nearly a year now, Israel has been operating without a proper governing coalition, with no end in sight. This made selecting and ranking the people with the biggest influence on the country a hefty  challenge. The list drawn up by TheMarker and Haaretz isn’t necessarily comprised of 2019’s biggest newsmakers, it’s of people who will be shaping the year ahead.

But how do you know who will have an impact if you don’t know who will be prime minister, the cabinet members, ministry directors general and other important civil servants? Of course, not all of Israel is based on the public sector, but given the diminishing power of the country’s tycoons, the government and the top civil servants are setting the trends. That’s how things should be in a democracy.

When there’s no government, there’s no budget, and there’s definitely no vision or policy. Plus it’s impossible to know how life in Israel will progress – who will take advantage of the vacuum to impose their influence and who won’t.

TheMarker and Haaretz drafted a list based on discussions among journalists at both papers. We identified trends during the political stalemate such as the growing power of bureaucrats. Some state institutions have chosen to halt work until a new government is formed. Others, such as the Tel Aviv municipality, are advancing their agendas aggressively during the gridlock and are changing the status quo; take Tel Aviv’s bus program on Shabbat.

Another trend is the great influence of certain people abroad; sometimes Israelis don’t even realize it. This segment includes the presidents of the United States and China, whose trade conflict has ensnared Israel and the whole global economy. Likewise, the CEOs of major internet companies have a great influence on the public debate in both Israel and abroad.

Also, many people unknown to the public – and who may not seem particularly interesting – are having a great impact on life in Israel. They’re helping craft our future health care system, children’s education and real estate prices. They’re also playing a key role in whether we’ll keep on sitting in traffic jams and continue facing one of the world’s highest costs of living.

Some of our choices may be surprising, while others may seem obvious. Of course, there’s no one way to draw up a list of influencers. The goal here is to tell the story of Israel right now, and to try to forecast what 2020 has in store. (Eytan Avriel)

1. IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi
IDF Chief of Staff Aviv KochaviCredit: Moti Milrod

Israel Defense Forces chief Aviv Kochavi doesn’t have to do much to be the county’s most influential person. A lot rests on Kochavi’s shoulders. There are clouds on the security front, an uncertain economy that includes large budgetary demands from the military, and political uncertainty stemming from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial. Less than a year on the job, the lieutenant general’s actions over the next year will have a massive impact on life in Israel. Read the full profile of Kochavi. (Amos Harel)

2. Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai
Tel Aviv Mayor Ron HuldaiCredit: Moti Milrod

After 21 years as Tel Aviv mayor, Ron Huldai can be said to be the politician with the most influence on Israelis’ day-to-day lives. Tel Aviv’s economic prosperity has given him the financial footing to carry out major improvements; he doesn’t need the central government’s backing. Huldai doesn’t court political allies, and he’s free to make decisions that change people’s way of life. The results extend far beyond his city. Read the full profile of Huldai. (Meirav Moran)

3. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Kahol Lavan Chairman Benny Gantz

Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuCredit: Corinna Kern / Reuters and Ohad Zwigenberg

Since taking office in 2009 after a decade in the political wilderness, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has portrayed himself as a radical but has skirted any decisions that would change the existing order. His main order of business has been staying in power. He depicts himself as someone from the margins, and he’s the clear opponent of institutions associated with the mainstream, above all the military. It’s no wonder that Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan party, which is striving to replace Netanyahu, is led by three former military chiefs. Netanyahu is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, but has he left an indelible stamp on the country and led it in new directions, or simply floated from crisis to crisis and hoped for the best? Read the full profile of Netanyahu and Gantz. (Aluf Benn)

4. Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Alphabet CEO Larry Page

Alphabet CEO Larry Page (left) and Google CEO Sundar Pichai
Alphabet CEO Larry Page (left) and Google CEO Sundar Pichai Credit: Reuters and Jeff Chou / AP

Google controls 93% of the global market for online searches (not including China) and 100% of the Hebrew-language search market in Israel. It takes in a massive portion of online advertising budgets – it had revenues of nearly $130 billion in 2019 – which comes at the expense of traditional media like television and newspapers.

Google will probably earn more than $30 billion this year. It also controls nearly half the market for cellphone operating systems, as well as the online video market via YouTube and navigation via Waze and Google Maps. And it knows where nearly every person with a smartphone is at any time. Google knows things about hundreds of millions of people that they may not know about themselves.

If fact, Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Larry Page, until recently CEO of Google parent company Alphabet, have the capacity to know more about each of us than all governments do together.

And this power is only growing. Google recently acquired Fitbit, a smartwatch company that tracks users’ vital stats as they exercise. The company plans to launch digital bank accounts in partnership with Citigroup. It’s entering the video game industry and is gaining access to medical data through a partnership with around 2,400 hospitals. It’s even deepening its work with the U.S. military. It’s the global leader in artificial intelligence, cloud services, flight data and hundreds of other digital fields.

In other words, for many of us, what Google decides people will be doing is very likely what will come to be. (Eytan Avriel)

5. Supreme Court President Esther Hayut

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut
Supreme Court President Esther HayutCredit: Emil Salman

Nothing goes smoothly for the chief justice, Esther Hayut, but she’s not one to give up easily. She has no management experience and has never taken part in political street fights, but life has prepared her for the challenges that began even before she became Supreme Court president. Since being appointed to the job in 2017, Hayut has been waging a near-daily campaign to maintain the public’s faith in the court system. Things are only expected to get rougher during her remaining three years in the post. Read the full profile of Hayut. (Ido Baum)

6. Israel Corp. controlling shareholder Idan Ofer

Israel Corp. controlling shareholder Idan Ofer
Israel Corp. controlling shareholder Idan OferCredit: Denis Balibouse / Reuters

Idan Ofer, the heir of Sammy Ofer’s business empire and one of Israel’s richest people, seems to need lots of love. That might explain why he has been married four times, why he bought big stakes in two European soccer teams – Atletico Madrid and a second-league club in Portugal – and why he had a 700-person wedding party last summer.

Plus his family has donated to causes including the building of Sammy Ofer Stadium in Haifa, as well as the London Business School, where Idan Ofer studied, and the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion at the Tel Aviv Museum.

It’s also possible that another motive is at play: polishing Ofer’s reputation, particularly given the pollution at companies he owns. Ofer spends more than half his time in London, but he’s still responsible for his business empire’s factories in Israel. According to 2018 data from the Environmental Protection Ministry, he owns five of the 10 most polluting factories in Israel including Oil Refineries Ltd., Carmel Olefins and Dead Sea Magnesium. According to some research, considering the health effects, the Haifa Bay area is particularly polluted. 

Ofer also controls ocean shipping companies, including Israel’s Zim and a Singaporean oil shipping company. Ocean shipping is thought to be responsible for 3% of carbon emissions, similar to the airline industry.

If that weren’t enough, Ofer never fails to show indifference to the climate crisis. For example, the guests at his wedding party on the Greek island of Mykonos came via private jets seating six to 12 people apiece. 

Until recently, Israelis showed a worrying lack of interest in pollution and global warming, and big business took advantage of this to save the money it would take to cut emissions and clean up polluted soil. The Environmental Protection Ministry, typically friendly to tycoons and major companies, is indifferent to this pollution.

Israelis have become more aware in recent years, realizing that environmental risk isn’t an inherent part of manufacturing and can be limited.

Idan Ofer is worth an estimated $4.5 billion, and his brother Eyal Ofer an estimated $10.7 billion. What would happen if they used some 20% of their joint wealth – $3 billion – to move their factories outside population centers, curb their pollution and even shutter some plants?

It’s true that most of Eyal Ofer’s operations aren’t in Israel, but most of his money he inherited from his father Sammy, who bought the Israel Corporation in 1999. A $3 billion contribution to limit environmental damage would greatly improve the lives of more than 1 million Israelis. (Eytan Avriel)

7. Finance Ministry Accountant General Roni Hizkiyahu and Finance Ministry budgets chief Shaul Meridor

Finance Ministry budgets chief Shaul Meridor (left) and Finance Ministry Accountant General Roni Hizkiyahu
Finance Ministry budgets chief Shaul Meridor (left) and Finance Ministry Accountant General Roni HizkiyahuCredit: Tomer Appelbaum and Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Over the past year, the departments of the Finance Ministry’s accountant general and budgets director have had to put aside their history of animosity to join forces for a common goal: curbing  the hefty budget deficit. Amid the lack of a fully functioning government because of Israel’s three general elections within a year, the sum exceeding the deficit cap peaked at 14 billion shekels ($4.1 billion). 

So Accountant General Roni Hizkiyahu and budgets chief Shaul Meridor moved to cut spending. Hizkiyahu instructed his staff – the accountants general of the other ministries – to get this plan moving, putting him at loggerheads with other ministries.

The past year left Israel’s budgets director without a budget to be responsible for. None of his predecessors faced this scenario over such a stretch. In March it will be two years since the Knesset passed a budget, and it’s not clear when the next one will be approved. 

The budgets department, whose schedule normally revolves around the legislating of the annual budget, has been forced to get used to a new modus operandi where most of its work isn’t for immediate use.

This doesn’t mean Meridor has been resting. While cooperating with the state comptroller’s investigation into the state budget, he has been blocking budgetary demands that appear politically motivated. Meridor has clashed with Finance Ministry Director General Shai Babad, who has stayed on through the three election rounds despite his indications that he would quit. 

The budgets division has taken advantage of Israel’s political impasse to draft plans to be presented to the next government. The division has also stated that the next state budget will be “tight.” 
So far, most of these plans have stayed under the public radar.

When they’re publicized, the Finance Ministry is likely to face objections – even if they pale to negotiations with the defense establishment. Military chief Aviv Kochavi recently released a five-year plan designed to upgrade Israel’s capabilities, pitting the Defense Ministry yet again against the Finance Ministry.

Even if Meridor and Hizkiyahu defeat the deficit, they still face key issues for the economy: investing in infrastructure, particularly for transportation including the metro project for the greater Tel Aviv area. The budget for this endeavor, forecast at 150 billion shekels, worries them both. (Avi Waksman)

8. Diplomat Distributors owner and CEO Noam Weiman and Schestowitz owner Yoni Schestowitz – Israel’s major importers

Schestowitz owner Yoni Schestowitz (left) and Diplomat Distributors owner and CEO Noam Weiman
Schestowitz owner Yoni Schestowitz (left) and Diplomat Distributors owner and CEO Noam WeimanCredit: Daniel Bar On and Nir Keidar

The average Israeli knows nothing about Noam Weiman or Yoni Schestowitz, but these owners and CEOs of two of Israel’s major importers – Diplomat Distributors and Schestowitz, respectively – have a massive impact on Israel’s high cost of living.

For nearly 30 years, Weiman has controlled an importing empire that includes Procter & Gamble brands such as Gillette, Head & Shoulders and Oral B. He has annual sales of around 3.5 billion shekels ($1 billion) a year. Diplomat also distributes Procter & Gamble products in Cyprus, Georgia, South Africa and New Zealand, though most of its sales are in Israel. Weiman controls 40% of his company with his sister, and he has considered taking it public at a valuation of between 1.2 billion and 1.3 billion shekels.
Schestowitz, his company’s lone shareholder, has sales of some 900 million shekels a year, but he probably has higher profitability. Schestowitz imports from companies such as Colgate-Palmolive and Johnson & Johnson. 

Diplomat Distributors and Schestowitz took advantage of two major changes that Israeli society underwent in the early ‘90s – an improved quality of life and the launching of a commercial TV station, Channel 2, whose commercials helped the consumption culture penetrate Israel. Population growth also played a role. 
Still, the main reason for their outsize revenues is that for years Israel’s economy has suffered from concentration and thus a lack of competition, with politicians largely indifferent. 

Both Weiman and Schestowitz inherited their companies from their fathers, though Weiman is responsible for building his into an empire. He’s the one who struck the partnership with Procter & Gamble in the early ‘90s, including the exclusivity agreement still in place.

Schestowitz’s father struck his company’s exclusivity deal with Gillette, which is what made that company, and the younger Schestowitz was able to keep his company a power despite the loss of Gillette to Weiman in 2005.

The two businessmen have outsize power over Israel’s retail market. Diplomat controls around 90% of the market for men’s shaving products and 82% of women’s shaving products. It also controls 33% of the shampoo market, including 85% of anti-dandruff shampoo. Via Colgate, Schestowitz controls 53% of the toothpaste market, and it has other strong brands such as Palmolive soap and Speed Stick deodorant.

Israel’s cost-of-living protests in 2011 mostly targeted supermarket chain Super-Sol and food maker Tnuva, and overlooked the two importers, in part because the companies jealously guard their privacy.

They may have their status shaken by a reform being pushed by the Health Ministry to lift the  bureaucracy on the import of toiletries, which would enable increased competition and lower prices. At the moment, that plan seems far off, particularly given the lack of a stable government. If it happens, these men will be a bit less influential. (Shuki Sadeh)

9. Planning Administration chief Dalit Zilber

Planning Administration chief Dalit Zilber
Planning Administration chief Dalit ZilberCredit: Niv Kantor

Dalit Zilber became chief of the Israel Planning Administration in August 2017, and it wasn’t an easy start. Moshe Kahlon’s Finance Ministry was pressed to show planning accomplishments as part of the campaign to lower home prices, and Zilber’s predecessor, Binat Schwartz, had won acclaim and left large shoes to fill.

The planning administration’s goals under Kahlon were significantly more demanding than they had been: up to 120,000 new homes a year. In 2018 the administration approved 150,000 new homes, overshooting government targets and drawing accusations of untrammeled building. 

The planning administration drew fire from environmental groups, farmers and the heads of local governments, who accused it of excessive development that would mar rural towns and open spaces. Critics also said the administration wasn’t planning for transportation needs.

Zilber was also lambasted for ending the system that let developers increase the floor space of  projects that were already approved; she sought to increase planning certainty and transparency.

Her other major controversial move was her phasing out of the Tama 38 project, which lets builders add floors to existing buildings if they reinforce them against earthquakes. Zilber instead is promoting a plan that gives local governments the power to approve urban renewal projects.

A major project Zilber is working on is Israel’s strategic plan for housing circa 2040, as part of the National Economic Council’s strategic plan. With this, she’s likely to leave her mark on Israel for decades to come. (Yael Darel)

10. U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and U.S. President Donald Trump
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and U.S. President Donald Trump Credit: Pavel Golovkin / Reuters and Susan Walsh / AP

Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping started feuding even before Trump became president. In his election campaign, Trump assailed unfair competition from China, which he accused of stealing American jobs. 

He’s not entirely wrong – China has been a bully when it comes to trade policies. The question is what should be done about it. Trump’s response was a trade war with China, levying broad sanctions on Chinese imports to the United States.

China’s response was to hit Trump where it hurts: restrictions on agricultural products produced in the rural areas where Trump did well in 2016.

Israel, meanwhile, is seeing the side effects of the Trump administration’s demand to revisit trade deals with its trading partners. Israel has come under pressure to relax import duties on American agricultural products such as wine, cheese and apples. This could be bad news for some Israeli producers but good news for consumers, who would benefit from lower prices.

Another front in the Trump-Xi battle involves aid to Iran. China has met Trump’s offenses by offering aid to Iran. Weeks after Trump tightened U.S. sanctions on Tehran, China provided Xi’s country with a $400 billion aid package. Israeli defense officials are on high alert in this regard. (Israel Fisher)

11. Joint List leader Ayman Odeh

Joint List leader Ayman Odeh
Joint List leader Ayman OdehCredit: Tomer Appelbaum

Over the past three election rounds, Joint List leader Ayman Odeh has pushed the Arab sector to wake up to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s incitement against it – propelling them to the ballot box to win the Arab-majority alliance 13 seats in the previous election. Arab citizens appreciated the nerve of Odeh, a lawyer by profession, which thus far earned his community two record achievements at the ballot box.

Odeh has taken steps to turn Israel’s Arab community into a major political player, indicating that he wouldn’t oppose sitting in a government led by Zionist parties and recommending Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz to President Reuven Rivlin as his candidate for prime minister.

Odeh still has a way to go. If Israel’s Arab Israeli citizens all went to the polls on Election Day, and if the majority were to vote for the Joint List, it would win 19 Knesset seats. Odeh’s activism, alongside the incitement from Netanyahu and the right wing, may bring that closer to reality, making the Arab community impossible to ignore. (Hagai Amit)

12. Likud lawmaker Gideon Sa’ar

Likud lawmaker Gideon Sa'ar
Likud lawmaker Gideon Sa'arCredit: Olivier Fitoussi

One of the biggest gamblers in Israeli politics is Likud lawmaker Gideon Sa’ar. Shortly after Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit announced that he would be indicting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Sa’ar became the first to criticize Netanyahu’s onslaught against the rule of law in Israel. He was also the first to declare his candidacy in a Likud leadership contest against Netanyahu, ahead of the upcoming elections.

Sa’ar lost that vote, and he’s taken quite a bit of fire for getting up the courage to challenge Netanyahu, whose allies painted him as traitor. Even so, he has helped prepare his supporters and the party for the day after Netanyahu. He may have strengthened his standing as an alternative to Netanyahu, but he may also be remembered as someone who tried to undermine the party from within. (Hagai Amit)

13. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh

Ismail Haniyeh (left), Abdel-Fatah al-Sissi (center) and Ali Khomeini
Ismail Haniyeh (left), Abdel-Fatah al-Sissi (center) and Ali KhomeiniCredit: Khalil Hamra / AP, Carlos Barria / Reuters and Morteza Nikoubazl

For the past year, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi has been the wall preventing a war between Israel and the Gaza Strip. Egypt is the mediator between Hamas and Israel that has enabled the latter to maintain a temporary calm that may eventually become long-term.

Sissi’s main lever of influence on Hamas is the Rafah crossing between Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula, which Egypt has been opening in exchange for Hamas’ commitment to fight terror groups in Sinai. Egypt considers its military and intelligence ties with Israel a crucial component of its regional strategy and a means of maintaining healthy ties with the United States.

Israel sees Sissi as a partner in its front against Iran as part of the Saudi-led coalition to block the Islamic Republic’s regional influence.

Meanwhile, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has led Iran for the past 30 years, is Israel’s oldest enemy. For decades he has been dictating Israel’s regional strategy, drawing its map of threats and dictating the defense priorities of Israeli governments and the Israel Defense Forces. Under his rule, Iran has built partnerships and regional coalitions that changed the map of the Middle East. Iraq, Lebanon and half of Yemen are directly dependent on Iranian decisions; Qatar and Turkey are Iran’s partners; and Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Israel are a virtual block in conflict with it.

Through the Revolutionary Guards and its Quds force, among others, Khamenei has turned Iran into a regional power that doesn’t need a particularly advanced army or air force to maintain it. Its nuclear arms program took the place of conventional power, and is leveraged for diplomatic influence.

Like Iran and Hezbollah, Hamas, with Ismail Haniyeh at the helm, is also a regular player in Israel’s map of threats. While Iran poses a strategic threat due to its nuclear program, Hamas is a tactical threat, one that doesn’t pose an existential risk to Israel. Rather, it’s Israel that threatens Hamas’ existence.

Ostensibly, as long as Hamas is defined as a terror organization, it isn’t party to negotiations with Israel. However, by treating Hamas as responsible for anything that happens in Gaza, Netanyahu has essentially turned the group into a strategic partner whose existence is crucial to prevent a war, which would bring much sharper criticism than talks with Hamas would. (Zvi Bar’el)

14. Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit
Attorney General Avichai MendelblitCredit: Moti Milrod

The decision by Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit to first investigate and then indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in three corruption cases is probably the most influential decision by an Israeli public servant in years. The Netanyahu cases have shaken the political establishment, dragged Israel through three election rounds and essentially paralyzed politics. As a result, the country’s citizens have been taken hostage – reforms aren’t advancing, the state deficit is rising and the social rift is growing. A few months ago, it seemed like Israel was on the brink of a legislation-powered revolution intended to undermine Mendelblit’s decisions.

This may be enough to paint Mendelblit as Israel’s most influential individual, but in actuality, he has been very reluctant. He hesitated all the way to indicting Netanyahu, a decision that he made with a working team of some 20 prosecutors. Initially, Mendelblit didn’t even want to investigate the prime minister. His hesitation also plays out in other areas, such as his reluctance to intervene in the government’s move to legislate a new law permitting cameras at polling stations on the eve of the previous election.

Ultimately, Mendelblit isn’t a particularly enthusiastic gatekeeper. However, there’s no indication that he’s corrupt or can be extorted, as critics on the left and right like to claim. Mendelblit is a measured individual with a tendency to deliberate, who wound up in one of the most difficult jobs imaginable. It’s a twist of fate that his decisions led us into the largest political crisis Israel has faced in decades. (Gur Megiddo)

15. Migdal CEO Ran Oz and Harel CEO Michel Siboni

Harel CEO Michel Siboni (left) and Migdal CEO Ran Oz
Harel CEO Michel Siboni (left) and Migdal CEO Ran OzCredit: Yonatan Zindel / Flash 90 and Pazit Oz

Amid the growing trend in Israel for publicly held companies to not have a single controlling shareholder, institutional investors – insurance and pension fund managers – are flexing their muscles as they essentially fill those positions. Israel is still not the United States, where most companies lack a single controlling shareholder, but the trend is growing: Leading companies such as three large banks – Hapoalim, Leumi and Discount – are now among those that don’t have a single controlling shareholder. There’s also another 10 companies on the Tel Aviv-125 index that fit this description, plus an additional 30 companies on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange that didn’t make it into that index.

The resulting vacuum is being filled by institutional investors such as Migdal, led by CEO Ran Oz, and Harel, led by CEO Michel Siboni. The root of their power lies in the money under their control – some 1.6 trillion shekels, most of the public’s savings – and this figure is constantly growing. Migdal alone has 275 billion shekels under its management, while Harel has 260 billion shekels.

The institutional investors are also benefiting from the decrease in economic concentration in Israel and the fall of the country’s big business tycoons such as Nochi Dankner, Lev Leviev, Eliezer Fishman and Shaul Elovitch. This relieves pressure on the institutional investors and leaves them more free to make their own decisions. Given the lack of competition from tycoons and controlling shareholders, institutional investors are gaining more power – and more authority. That said, some of the investors themselves have particularly powerful controlling shareholders, such as Harel’s Yair Hamburger and Migdal’s Shlomo Eliahu. (Sami Peretz)

16. Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook CEO Mark ZuckerbergCredit: Andrew Harnik / AP

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg manages an internet empire with some 2.7 billion users across four platforms: Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. Zuckerberg himself is worth an estimated $74 billion. He and his platform have come under significant criticism for their outsize power, and for their inability – or unwillingness – to halt the spread of fake news, with all its implications for elections and life in general.

In Israel, much like the United States, the traditional media is under assault by the country’s leader. Both U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prefer speaking to voters via social media, where they can publish anything, true or otherwise. (Refaella Goichman)

17. Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman

Yisrael Beiteinu Avigdor Lieberman
Yisrael Beiteinu Avigdor LiebermanCredit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

A year ago, Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman was a political dead man walking. His party, originally founded to represent immigrants from the former Soviet union, seemed to be declining in relevance as those immigrants integrated. Lieberman himself had reached the top of Israeli politics, serving as defense minister and foreign minister, and he was seeking a new purpose. He found it by throwing his full weight against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and demanding that ultra-Orthodox young men be legally required to serve in the army, like the rest of Jewish Israelis.

After seven years in the coalition alongside ultra-Orthodox parties, Lieberman reinvented himself and turned into a major player in Israeli politics. His gamble played off: While his insistence on the draft law has twice undermined Netanyahu’s attempts to form a governing coalition, Yisrael Beiteinu gained 140,000 voters along the way. Lieberman is the kingmaker of Israeli politics: He can enable Netanyahu to form a narrow, right-wing government, and he has the capacity to force Likud into a unity government with Kahol Lavan’s Benny Gantz. What does Lieberman really want? It’s not entirely clear, but he certainly seems to be enjoying the process. (Chaim Levinson)

18. Histadrut Chairman Arnon Bar-David

Histadrut Chairman Arnon Ben-David
Histadrut Chairman Arnon Ben-DavidCredit: Eyal Toueg

Arnon Bar-David has been in charge of Israel’s largest labor federation for a year now. Some may even say he was de facto in charge during the tenure of the previous labor chief and current lawmaker Avi Nissenkorn. Bar-David led Tel Aviv’s municipal labor union – one of the largest, most powerful municipal unions – for three decades, and painted himself as a man of the people.

He has spent the past few months putting out fires and pulling together hasty compromises, and lowering the profile of Israel’s most problematic unions, namely those of the ports and Israel Railways. Bar-David’s strategy will be put to the test given Israel’s burgeoning budget deficit and the limit in salary flexibility that is likely to result, and the weakening of the Histadrut’s political arm, the Labor Party. Many of the center-right parties are campaigning on platforms that include fighting the “rule of labor unions,” and want to limit strikes. Meanwhile, the Histadrut has increased its membership by about one-third over the past five years, and now represents some 800,000 working Israelis. (Avi Bar-Eli)

19. Casino magnates and Israel donors Miriam and Sheldon Adelson

Israel Hayom owners Miriam and Sheldon Adelson
Israel Hayom owners Miriam and Sheldon AdelsonCredit: Moti Milrod

When free daily newspaper Israel Hayom first came out on June 30, 2007, its front page bore the headline “The plan for battling corruption,” which it termed a “strategic threat.” Since then, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been replaced with the decade-long reign of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the newspaper firmly associated with the latter has changed its stripes. Nowadays, it’s waging an aggressive battle against Israel’s law enforcement authorities, in the name of keeping Netanyahu in power.

But if you read the accounts of Israel Hayom’s owners, the U.S.-Israeli casino magnates Miriam and Sheldon Adelson, their relationship with the Netanyahus is quite complicated. Sheldon Adelson has reportedly called Sara Netanyahu “crazy,” and Miriam Adelson has mocked the prime minister for how he screams into the phone when he’s upset with her newspaper. Their statements indicate that they’re no longer firmly convinced that Netanyahu is the best leader for Israel. And yet, they continue to support him via their newspaper.

The criminal investigations into Netanyahu undermined previous theses into his relationship with the Adelsons, and hint that they may actually have the upper hand - Netanyahu has stated in private conversation that Adelson does what he likes regardless of Netanyahu’s requests.

To date, the Adelsons are thought to have sunk more than 1 billion into Israel Hayom. While Netanyahu is likely to end his term in the next year, their newspaper will go on deciding whether it supports or opposes corruption, depending who’s in office. (Nati Tucker)

20. Bank of Israel Governor Amir Yaron

Bank of Israel governor Amir Yaron
Bank of Israel governor Amir YaronCredit: Emil Salman

Prof. Amir Yaron took on the job of Israel’s central bank governor with some caution, but since then he’s gained confidence. After spending 25 years in American academia, Yaron returned home, where he now warns Israel’s government about the dangers of the booming deficit, and has termed the country’s economic forecasts “particularly merciful.” Yaron’s agenda includes a strategic plan for updating Israel’s out-of-date payments system, examining the bank’s tools for managing Israel’s monetary policy, and crafting the banking regulations of the future. (Avi Waksman)

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