What Happened in Netanyahu's Secret Meetings With Tycoons?

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, at the groundbreaking of a new port.Credit: Ilan Assayag

Benjamin Netanyahu is no Ehud Olmert. Unlike his predecessor, the current prime minister, who decided Tuesday to take us on an expensive and unnecessary election journey, is not corrupt. Though he was investigated several times in the past, he was never indicted.

But that doesn’t mean his actions shouldn’t be investigated. Even if we forget the Bibi Tours affair and a few other episodes, Netanyahu’s handling of key economic decisions over the past two years requires a thorough review. And this doesn’t include his support for the finance minister’s zero-VAT bill.

Netanyahu met with Yitzhak Tshuva, Delek Group’s controlling shareholder, shortly before his government decided on whether to export Israeli natural gas. The Delek Group is one of two companies controlling most of Israel’s proven gas reserves.

In October, Netanyahu met with Udi Angel, a holder of the Channel 2 Reshet franchise and a shareholder in the Israel Corporation. There’s no saying what the two discussed, as Netanyahu held these meetings at his home, off the record, without assistants present.

Nochi Dankner's trial will bring some of the Israeli capital market's leading players to the witness stand.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

But it’s clear they had things to talk about. The discussion with Angel was held shortly before Netanyahu appointed himself communications minister to replace Gilad Erdan, who took over at the Interior Ministry.

Delek Group controlling shareholder Yitzhak Tshuva.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Netanyahu knew that then-Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar was taking his “time-out” from politics and that Erdan was likely to take over. Days after assuming Erdan’s ministry, Netanyahu canceled Erdan’s initiative to split Channel 2, a move that benefited Angel.

The meeting with Angel, whom Netanyahu knows from his army days, also came less than a week before the release of the Sheshinski report on the exploitation of Israel’s natural resources, a report of great interest to Israel Chemicals, an Israel Corp. company.

But Netanyahu’s most disturbing relationship is with Nochi Dankner, the former strongman of the Israeli economy who’s now on trial. Netanyahu would meet occasionally with Dankner, but it’s not clear to what extent these meetings were held at critical points. Netanyahu’s office always refused to comment.

Netanyahu and Dankner have a close common associate; Nir Hefetz, the Netanyahu family spokesman, is also Dankner’s spokesman. Hefetz has spent many hours sitting behind Dankner in court and speaking to journalists for his boss.

Based on Dankner’s datebook, parts of which were published in Yedioth Ahronoth on Tuesday, Dankner met with Netanyahu at the prime minister’s house the evening before the committee investigating economic concentration presented its findings to the public. In other words, the man whose great power in Israel’s economy necessitated such a committee met with Netanyahu hours before the committee released its report.

Of course, this meeting should never have taken place. But since it did, it should have been conducted much more transparently – in an office, during office hours, on the record. Hefetz, a former editor of the tabloid Maariv, often appears in Dankner’s datebook and was present for many meetings.

In those days, Dankner was battling for survival – he was nearly bankrupt, but he still controlled IDB, Israel’s largest conglomerate, and he was seeking to raise money. That’s when he launched his IDB share placement targeting his friends.

Based on what Yedioth Ahronoth reported Tuesday, Dankner, who had already stopped making payments to banks, wrote a note in his datebook to wish Bank Leumi CEO Rakefet Russak-Aminoach a happy birthday and send her a text message with the results of the share sale. He also met with Bank Hapoalim CEO Zion Kenan around that time.

To this day the banks have done nothing regarding Dankner’s debt, and he continues paying advisers and lawyers and acting like a billionaire.

According to Yedioth, Dankner left the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem and headed straight to his Herzliya home, where he allegedly conducted the share-price manipulation; hence the criminal trial.

That evening he met with Itai Strum, who is also facing charges in the same case, and with Willi-food owner Yossi Williger. Williger, who came to Dankner’s home, had already planned to invest 10 million shekels ($2.5 million) of his publicly held company’s money in Dankner’s share placement.

But according to the prosecution, Williger changed his plans after meeting with Danker and Strum. Instead of using the full sum to buy shares through the placement, he was allegedly asked to buy IDB shares from Strum; in other words, to take part the share-price manipulation.

Williger allegedly agreed. According to a text message read out in court, the following day Dankner asked if he could “increase Strum’s portion.” Williger reportedly responded that the matter was being taken care of, and Dankner replied, “You’re great.”

That day, Dankner met at a cafe with then-Partner Communications controlling shareholder Ilan Ben-Dov, who had also been asked to buy shares from Strum. Ben-Dov reportedly did so. Dankner at the time was controlling shareholder of competitor Cellcom, raising the question of whether that meeting was legal.

Ben-Dov and Williger were interrogated by the Israel Securities Authority and are not suspects in the case. Dankner and Netanyahu are currently on trial – Dankner in criminal court, Netanyahu before the public. It wouldn’t hurt if their meetings – between Israel’s prime minister and the most powerful player in its economy – were thoroughly examined.

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