A Brave New Beilink World

Yossi Beilin's international consultancy firm is still finding its way in the realm of business, but is already enjoying success thanks to his long-standing ties with leading politicians and statesmen abroad. In a wide-ranging interview, he talks about his work with European and Arab countries - and, of course, about local politics.

Yossi Beilin, in a conservative suit and tie, tries to find his way around the new offices in Herzliya Pituah, to which he moved with his 15 employees a day earlier. The boxes haven't been unpacked, wires are running loose everywhere and the coffee is black because there is no milk yet.

Two and a half years have passed since he quit a successful, albeit controversial, public career.

Yossi Beilin, in his new office in Herzliya Pituah.
Tal Cohen

"I do not long for the political world," he says. "When I was there I frequently felt like I was the one serving time. I said I would stop when I was 60; I am 63 and there is no chance I would return to politics - not even as prime minister. I am moving on."

And if they call upon you to come back and save the bleeding Labor Party?

Beilin: "Labor? My heart really goes out to it. When I finished high school, I didn't go back to play basketball with the 12th-graders or to start up with the girls there. I do not look back."

These days the man who once served as MK, justice minister and deputy foreign minister, among other positions, is deeply involved in business, and openly admits that he uses the contacts he made during his political career to further his new interests. Immediately after leaving politics, he founded and became president of Beilink - a name devised by his two sons who work in advertising. Beilink, an international consultancy and strategic investment firm, aims to promote the interests of private Israeli companies abroad using Beilin's connections, those of his partners and an international network of former diplomats and politicians. The firm also assists international companies with business interests here.

"I did not anticipate the scope of the activity we would have, and discovered a very interesting field. It is amazingly varied and excites me," Beilin says of his brief experience in his new career. "The idea guiding me was to establish an institution that would provide answers to Israeli companies that need services that the state cannot provide. For example, the state cannot provide services ... to two [Israeli] companies competing over the same tender in a foreign country. It will help the first one, but the minute another Israeli company enters the game, the state will not intervene. The same goes for dealing with a country with which the state has no diplomatic relations, [where] the Foreign Ministry is interested in our help in promoting connections. Our intention is to establish something of a 'foreign ministry for business' that provides Israeli clients with contacts to sources abroad they would otherwise have difficulty reaching, and handles and follows up on developments. This complements the [work of the] Foreign Ministry. Since I know what the ministry can do and what it cannot do, in terms of providing services, the idea was to supplement its work, in part, with people who once worked there."

Indeed, among Beilin's employees are former Israeli ambassadors Avi Primor and Alon Liel. Liel, who served as the envoy to Turkey, recently helped a big Israeli company (which Beilin refuses to identify ) that had been told that the Turkish regime no longer needed its services. Thanks to mediation efforts that Beilink conducted with the government and the company's counterparts in Turkey, the firm's activities resumed.

Occasionally, Beilin says, he meets a senior politician abroad, with whom he had contacts when he himself was in the Foreign Ministry.

Israeli businessmen who need help turn to you and you pick up the phone to an old friend and close a deal?

Yossi Beilin

"Not exactly. I am selective. I will only take on something if I'm sure it's worth troubling someone about it. There is, now, a very big real estate dispute in Israel that concerns a foreign governmental entity. I am investing a lot of work in it and troubling senior people in a certain country. I wouldn't dare bother them if the client had not persuaded me [of the value of the project].

"I take only matters that interest me, that pose a challenge and have true value. At first I was afraid there would be no work, but the flow hasn't stopped. Most of the work involves due diligence. Many people came with wonderful start-ups, who wanted me to help them raise capital, but I could not properly assess them. I have found myself working with very big companies with international relations departments of their own, which I did not expect would contact me."

While Beilin does not divulge details about his Israeli clients, he says they include some well-known tycoons. "In the middle of very big projects, they suddenly come up against a problem involving regulators, or another problem which, say, a vice president for marketing cannot solve because he has no access to a prime minister or finance minister."

So like other well-known public personalities who preceded you, you are going after the big money?

"We are all built differently. Most of the people who left the public arena for the business world have no offices, and don't work in a company like ours. Some prefer to work alone and so there is a big difference in income. Here the expenses are very high. I assume that if I were to work from home, alone, and focus on just a few areas, I would earn more."

Do you see an ethical problem with using contacts made while you were a government official, in order to promote business?

"The ethical question here is whether you can actually draw a line between your [former] activities as a public personality or official, and what you do afterward. It's an individual matter. If, for example, a person involved in politics advanced a businessman's interests in a realm in which he [the politician] had influence, then there is a problem. But if such a line cannot be drawn, no one would ever demand that the person sever the contacts he created ... This is a matter of personal integrity. The aggregate [of business-related activity] is based on years of public work, but not public work geared for this moment."

What happens when former politicians use their contacts and then decide to return to politics?

"For me that is irrelevant because I am not returning to politics, period."

Do you, today, meet local people with whom you had ties as a politician?

"I sat with a person who headed a company and we talked about services that he needed from Beilink. I noticed he was ill at ease and asked him why. He said, after hesitating, that he did not have a problem doing business with me, but had a lot of criticism of me. I was sure, as in other cases, that it was a political matter - that he is a hawk and I am a dove. When the meeting ended I told him I had felt uncomfortable, but that I was also curious. He said that when I was justice minister, I refused to pardon his son who was in prison.

"There were thousands of such incidents; many people seek a pardon. I asked him whether he got an explanation [about the refusal], and he said he did, but it was not convincing. I said: 'I understand you, but when I was justice minister I desecrated every Sabbath in order to read three or four boxes full of requests for pardon.' It was my nightmare ... Was he reconciled? I don't know. But the business contacts with him continue. The past has a huge influence. I know I was a controversial figure. As for what I did in the diplomatic arena, some would say it was a disaster and some a blessing."

New at the game

Beilink is still new at the business game, although so far deals have been signed with a few dozen companies. It initially focused on providing mediation services and advice to Israeli and foreign entities, which approached it in order to have it promote their interests vis-a-vis other countries. The payment for these services included a retainer, plus extra fees in the event of success, usually dependent on sales volume.

Beilin explains that the firm works a lot in European countries, "including Germany, Austria and France, and in the United States, which is a main 'address' for investors. South African businessmen have approached us about finding a foreign entity that will invest in a plant there. Part of our job is indeed to find investors; we specialize in knowing who is ready to invest and in what. When such a request comes in, we examine the suitability of the firm. We are involved in cases where firms, usually American, buy entire companies or shares in Israeli and foreign firms, and come to us because of our contacts. Today, finding investors has become a more central activity.

"In addition we've received many offers from Israelis interested in investing in real estate in Europe, and by Americans and Europeans who offered us such initiatives. Helping Israeli companies abroad constitutes a large part of the company's activities. However, we just completed an investment deal on behalf of a very big French company, in a very small Palestinian firm. The person who heads the French company is a friend of mine."

These days Beilin is creating a joint initiative with former Labor MK Rafi Elul to promote business for Israel agricultural firms in Arab countries.

"We found ourselves overlapping with Elul's activities in an Arab state and decided to form a company together that would handle such initiatives ... We can see where each one of us has a relative advantage and how that can find expression. Thus, for example, we can jointly initiate solutions for third countries, say, in which we have seen a certain problem, and find a solution for it."

Where are your red lines, as a company?

"We will never deal with deals involving offensive weaponry, just in homeland security. We will not do business with rogue states, even if Israel has full diplomatic ties with them, such as Burma. We won't handle unethical payments that don't seem like bribes, but actually are, and will not get involved in deals that we identify as being problematic. We've encountered the two last scenarios and it was not easy. Arms, for example, are a very popular realm in the world of Israeli business. We are not involved in it."

Global network

The informal international network with which Beilin works is made up of former government ministers and other leaders, and includes some 20 prominent figures, among them former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; former foreign ministers such as Joschka Fischer of Germany, Igor Ivanov of Russia and France's Bernard Kouchner; and former World Bank President James Wolfensohn. "They are really friends and we know no one will trick the other. Each one has his own specialization and together we cover the world. I know that Albright is very strong in Brazil and Turkey, for example," says Beilin.

The contacts Beilink has with Israel's Foreign Ministry are no secret. While they do not directly involve Avigdor Lieberman, Beilin thinks the minister is aware of them.

"The ministry people also use me in matters connected with the Arab world and other states with which we have no diplomatic relations. Sometimes they tell me not to touch something," he notes.

Why would a European company need an Israeli's help to work in the Gulf, for example?

"Many European companies do not have any relative advantage in the Arab world. They do not know how to begin working there - how to get to senior officials there."

Despite the absence of open diplomatic ties with most Arab states, they are in fact involved in many deals with Israel, he adds: "There is a close and attractive market here. In the Arab world, or at least part of it, there is a rare combination of very great needs and a very high financial capability, especially in the Arabian Peninsula. That is why Israelis want to market goods there. Another market is Palestinian, with which [Israeli firms] do almost $4.5 billion worth of business a year."

How does the Arab world react to an Israeli product?

"There is a strange admiration of Israel's capability. The Arab markets are very interested in Israeli high tech, agriculture and water products. For many elements in the Arab world, the Israeli product is a guarantee of quality. But because of the fear related to doing business with Israel, the Arab world insists that the goods ... be channeled through third companies that are not Israeli. There is a dualism: reservations about Israeli goods beside a demand for them."

How did you get the impression that Israeli goods are admired?

"Someone from one of the Gulf states was in our office; quite a few come here. He was looking for an Israeli partner to establish his yacht-building plant, and I asked him why he was looking here. He said: 'You have no idea how having an Israeli partner in my yacht plant would be perceived. It will affect Jews around the world and future buyers.'"

He wasn't afraid he would be hurt if it were to emerge that he has an Israeli partner?

"Not at all. On the one hand, Israel is very problematic, but on the other hand, on the business side, there is a benefit. Anyone whose admiration for everything produced here overcomes his reservations about contacts with us can definitely do business."

If the Israeli origin of the product is concealed, how can that help relations between the countries?

"It contributes less, but there are always people who are in on the secret ... and these people belong to the elite. Whoever thinks [Israel] can cross off the Arab market is wrong."

How will the revolutions in the Arab world affect Israel?

"So far we have not felt any effects ... I am not sure there will be a revolution in these [business] contexts. When you talk about businesspeople, they don't change overnight. Some of the Egyptian businessmen who belonged to 'high society' fled, but most of them stayed. The contacts we've had with people persist; most of the meetings continue to be held abroad. But things might change.

"The rising importance of political opinion will, to my mind, lead to more awareness with respect to food security. Most of the storms in the Arab world have focused on the standard of living. It is thus important to establish a secure nutritional base that is stronger than the previous one. In agriculture, Israel has a lot to contribute ... and I see an increased demand in this field, especially from the private sector, but also the governmental one."

Is there reason to fear for the future of the Egyptian agreement with Israel?

"I don't think so. But there is definitely fear for relations with Egypt. I am afraid that the chances that peace will exist only in words, in a very limited way, are not insignificant. True, the peace has always been considered cold, yet Israel still has textile and other industrial concerns in Egypt. That world might cease to exist, but business ties derive from needs, and Israel knows how to meet a significant part of them."

'Missing an opportunity'

Even after he officially quit politics, Beilin was still involved in diplomatic moves conducted behind the scenes. Various elements, especially foreign, used to consult him and keep him informed of developments.

Do you have contacts with Shimon Peres or the Peres Center for Peace?

"Not with the center. But Peres and I meet every week at the President's Residence."

And he also helps you in business?

"Yes. From morning to night, he calls people and asks them to involve me in their work."

Do you also work with the political echelon?

"I do not touch local lobbying and do not approach ministers."

Referring to the clash between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama over an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, including their public statements during Netanyahu's visit to Washington last month, Beilin declares: "We are missing an opportunity to reach a historical agreement that we have waited for for many years with a Palestinian leadership that, in the meantime, is about to step down. We are not a partner. This is a classic situation in which there is a Palestinian partner, but no Israeli partner.

"At the head of the State of Israel stands a prime minister who is not willing to pay the price for peace even though he knows what it is. He is willing to present very far-reaching positions as long as he is not put to the test. He is ready for concessions under conditions which he knows, a priori, will not be accepted. He acted this way during his first term of office and is doing it again with his conditions that [the Palestinians] recognize a Jewish state, and with refusal to freeze the settlements. Therefore, I do not think we are moving toward anything on the diplomatic level. We are leaving it to the 'forces of inertia' to do the work, expecting that nothing bad will happen, although we know that when we acted in a similar fashion, bad things did happen."

Do you share the assessment that the reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah is a disaster for Israel?

"I think it constitutes, in particular, a very great advantage. The Palestine Liberation Organization is our partner. If there is a possibility of reaching an agreement with the PLO, it should be acted on, because even if Hamas is elected to the premiership in the next elections, it will face a fait accompli. It is not easy to abolish a peace treaty. Hamas has not been co-opted into the PLO. We can reach an agreement with the PLO and we should rush to do so. Netanyahu thinks otherwise and I think he is leading to a situation in which he, or his successor from the right, will do as Ariel Sharon did: Since they understand the demographic problem and are not willing to pay the full price, they will withdraw unilaterally to the fence, and this is a very problematic solution."

Netanyahu argues that for security reasons Israel cannot withdraw its forces from the Jordan River. Do you agree with this?

"That's not true. In the Geneva accord there is a detailed program regarding the crossings with direct and indirect Israeli presence for years. You cannot withdraw unilaterally and leave soldiers in the valley. Just as when we left the Gaza Strip we withdrew from the Philadelphi strip. Netanyahu understands this too and we will pay a double price, we will withdraw and there will be no peace."

What should the next stage be?

"Since Netanyahu is not willing to reach a permanent arrangement, there is a need for something partial - the second stage of the road map, a Palestinian state with temporary borders. This requires, from Obama, a much more detailed presentation of his vision. Under the existing circumstances, this is the most modest thing that can be done. In September the Palestinians will get a lot of support at the UN, if they indeed declare independence. There will be a huge majority for a Palestinian state.

"I think that in the coming months nothing will happen with the peace process. Netanyahu presented his position to the world. The Palestinians say they will talk to us under certain conditions and they have not been met. The Americans will not apply pressure. Everybody is heading toward banging their heads against the wall and hoping it will be okay in September and that an intifada will not erupt. I cannot predict what will happen. Clearly, when there is no political process, the danger of violence is much higher; the ice is very thin, and it can crack at any moment. Netanyahu has to decide what he can do within his ideological framework, beyond the speeches. I think he can go for an interim move or a unilateral step to prove that he is serious. I do not support such a solution, but at least it would be possible to implement the second stage of the road map. But I do not think that he is ready to do so."

What are the chances that the Palestinians will forgo the declaration of statehood?

"Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] really doesn't want it. If they end up with 40 percent of the [occupied] territory, this will not help them. This is more of a provocation or a move that will supposedly allow them to argue that another state, which is a member of the UN, has penetrated their territory and is acting illegally, and that therefore the matter should be brought before the International Court of Justice. They could use [the declaration] to get groups around the world to boycott Israel."

When asked about Defense Minister Ehud Barak's warnings of a political "tsunami" facing Israel in September, and about the prediction of economic disaster that has been voiced by businessman Idan Ofer - who has created a new peace forum with former Shin Bet chief Jacob Perry - Beilin has reservations, but at the same time does not want to say anything against members of the so-called peace camp. He answers diplomatically that "the only thing I can say is that the unexpected can be expected in September. The situation could deteriorate to [the level mentioned in the] dark predictions if there's a trigger that sparks violence and stops investments in Israel."

Is there an Israel politician who can be a partner for peace?

"Netanyahu has a stable coalition. I suppose that if someone like [Laborites] Amram Mitzna or Isaac Herzog would become prime minister, he could lead a move toward peace. Mitzna is a signatory to the Geneva Accords. But even if he wins the Labor Party's leadership, a party with eight MKs cannot be an alternative to the premiership."

And what about opposition leader Tzipi Livni?

"It is difficult to know whether she can produce an agreement. She is responsible and very honest and successfully fulfilled ministerial positions. She might make a good prime minister, but I am disappointed with her as leader of the opposition. She is too careful, doesn't wage battles over what she should fight for in the political arena as well as with respect to minority and human rights. She should have spoken much more clearly about the Nakba Law [outlawing public commemoration of the Palestinian "disaster" of 1948], about harming Arab MKs and about the acceptance committees in communities that ... discriminate against some groups. Her voice is not heard or sounds too weak.

"I think someone told her that a prime minister does not lose to his rival but only to himself, and that's why she is quiet because it guarantees her backing within her camp. But in the end she might lose everything. If you do nothing, there may be less criticism [of you], but then people say you are not suitable."

How do you relate to the deterioration of values in local politics, where one official steals and another rapes. Has something connected with norms gone wrong?

"I do not have a good answer. I am not sure that norms are deteriorating. I think there is greater [public] exposure and that people all over the world are afraid to do things they did in the past."

Do the reports about Barak's and Netanyahu's lifestyles and wasteful management also reflect the changed norms?

"There are types of behavior that a private person can allow himself to display, but a public personality cannot ... He must tell himself: 'Even if I can, I ought not to.' Perhaps Barak and Netanyahu did not notice this limitation."

Are the public reactions to such behavior justified?

" Even if you have money, the showing-off is repulsive and disgusts me. Public norms of course have changed - also in the areas of proper management and governance. [Israel is] moving to better places in the realm of [combating] bribery in the international realm, after our acceptance into the OECD. ... Today the world allows itself to probe areas in which, in the past, it seems, anyone did what he pleased. I am glad to be able to pay the price for joining the OECD."

From Labor to capital

Yossi Beilin began his political career in 1974 as Labor Party spokesman. He was later considered Shimon Peres’ protege and fulfilled various positions under him. Only in 1988 was he elected for the first time to the Knesset, and became deputy finance minister under Peres. When Yitzhak Rabin became prime minister, four years later, Beilin was appointed as Peres’ deputy in the Foreign Ministry; after Rabin’s murder, he served in the Peres cabinet as a minister in the Prime Minister’s Office.

In 1997 Beilin ran for the Labor leadership and lost to Ehud Barak, who made him minister of justice, although he had no legal training. He opposed Labor’s decision to join Ariel Sharon’s cabinet, in 2001, and two years later, on the eve of the election to the 16th Knesset, Beilin quit the party when after the party primary he was left in a position on Labor’s electoral list that made it unlikely he would make it into the parliament. He formed a new movement, called Shahar, which joined with Meretz in the 2003 election ‏(as Meretz-Yahad‏); Beilin, however, did not make it into the Knesset.

In March 2004 he became the leader of Meretz-Yahad, but thereafter his rivals Ran Cohen and Zehava Gal-On, and, eventually, Haim Oron, said they would run against him in the next primaries. Beilin quit the party’s leadership, and on October 28, 2008, on the eve of the elections to the 18th Knesset, he announced his retirement from politics.
He has been identified, perhaps most of all, as one of the moving forces behind the initiative which spawned the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians, in 1993. He was also among those who initiated and supported the army’s withdrawal from Lebanon, in 2000, when Ehud Barak was prime minister, and was one of the leaders of the Geneva Initiative that produced an unofficial framework for a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.