If you do a Google search asking whether cabinet ministers meet with businesspeople, the first result will be a guide for doing business in Albania. Page 84 explains that it has become difficult to meet with government ministers in Albania since the prime minister ordered the ministers not to meet with businesspeople except when the project is close to completion. The guide also explains why: Unscrupulous businesspeople used these meetings as photo ops with the ministers, and then announce that they have a special relationship with them.
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Albania seems to be a more developed country than Israel, at least in that area. There are no such restrictions here — not in the form of a legislative amendment to an existing law, or a cultural norm, or even a recommendation, and certainly not in day-to-day reality. On Wednesday, journalist Tomer Avital’s 100 Days of Transparency project reported that businessman Yitzhak Tshuva met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at least seven times in recent years, some of them outside an office setting.
Tshuva is partner to a monopoly that owns more than 90 percent of the natural gas in Israel’s territorial waters; every government decision about drilling licenses, taxation, competition or royalties has a direct effect on his pocket. Yet the prime minister appears to feel there is nothing wrong with repeatedly meeting with Tshuva.
And he’s not the only businessman Netanyahu meets. In early 2012 he met three times in a single week with Nochi Dankner, who was the controlling shareholder of the IDB group until late 2013. These meetings — which were held in Netanyahu’s home, evidently without any professionals present or any minutes taken — took place precisely during the time the committee on decentralization was releasing its final recommendations. In this case too, Netanyahu did not appear to think there was any problem with holding a series of private meetings of this kind, precisely with a person whose ownership of the concern, as well as his pocket, stood to be affected directly by the committee’s recommendations. These examples give the appearance of a particular way of doing business.
Part of the club?
So far, Netanyahu has not been among the politicians identified as being in bed with local tycoons or with the cadre of wealthy people who took control over large portions of Israel’s economy over the past 20 years. Of course, he does have his wealthy donors from abroad and a billionaire who owns a pro-Netanyahu newspaper, but he is not seen as part of the club.
Netanyahu established the Sheshinski Committee (which affected the natural-gas barons) and the deregulation committee (which hurt the owners of holding groups structured as pyramids). Just as significantly, he found himself embroiled in fights with several leaders of this prestigious tycoons’ club.
Specifically, the prime minister is engaged in a rivalry with Arnon Mozes, the owner of Yedioth Ahronoth, and he was and remains in a political rivalry with people close to Yedioth Ahronoth, such as Ehud Olmert in the past and Yair Lapid at present. Whether this stems from a conscious choice or is just the way things turned out, Netanyahu was never fully a friend of the tycoons’ club — or, at least, it looks that way.
But is it true? Netanyahu’s one-on-ones with Tshuva, Dankner and others who are subject to government regulation pose serious challenges to this belief. What exactly did Netanyahu and Dankner discuss during the three meetings that took place inside one week in February 2012? What did Netanyahu and Tshuva discuss in the seven meetings that Tomer Avital reported on? What about other meetings?
It would be surprising, almost unreasonable, if at least some of those meetings did not focus on attempts by the businessmen to pressure Netanyahu into changing government decisions that affected them — and businessmen are very good at offering favors when they want something from a politician. After all, they would never have gotten where they are without developing that ability. Why is Netanyahu interested in dealing with that kind of pressure?
Show of power
One possible answer is that Netanyahu, and perhaps his wife as well, enjoy the show of power that the situation creates. The rich men of the town come to their doorstep, making requests and laying their pleas before the prime minister, who represents perfect official dignity and sends them away empty-handed at the end of the evening.
Sometimes the tycoon is also pleased with that result. Dankner used to recall how he and Netanyahu conceived the idea of bringing in Stanley Fischer as the governor of the Bank of Israel. According to the story, Netanyahu and Dankner met up at an event, smoked a cigar together, the idea came up, and then they went off to the side and made a telephone call to Fischer. The story seems like a verbal version of those Albanian photo-ops. Both are ways for businesspeople to impress friends and business associates with the connections they have.
But while that answer might make sense if there were a single chance meeting, it seems less likely when there’s an ongoing series of them. If those multiple meetings yielded no results, then businessmen would learn they could get nothing from Netanyahu and would stop meeting with him.
These are people who share their knowledge and experience, and they are not stupid. They do not like wasting time and they do not enjoy asking for something only to be turned down.
The number of meetings indicates that the businessmen have found a reason for them, have provided them with some added value. What added value would that be? What regulatory breaks did they get?
Did they manage, during those meetings, to change the prime minister’s positions or the decisions made by professional teams? If so, did the prime minister receive anything in return? Could it be, for example, that he received something from them that he will be collecting only years from now, when he leaves political life, as corrupt politicians and officials have done in the past?
We do not know the answers to these disturbing questions. It is hard to believe Netanyahu is unaware of the bad smell that wafts off every story of his meetings with businesspeople, especially when they take place at a crucial time for an industry subject to government regulation. There is no doubt that Netanyahu realizes that after the Yisrael Beiteinu corruption scandal broke, the public has become more sensitive than ever to incidents of corruption and to stories of the link between money and power.
There is also no doubt that Netanyahu remembers the public criticism leveled at Yuval Steinitz in 2010, when he met with Dankner in the IDB offices on the 48th floor of Tel Aviv’s Azrieli towers while serving as finance minister. He knows that meetings of this kind do not look good in the public eye, and he knows why.
If Netanyahu wants to retain any scrap of his clean image, of his reputation as a person who does not give in to tycoons, he must explain what he spoke about with Tshuva and Dankner during their meetings. Then he must announce that from this moment, he will hold such meetings only in his office, in the presence of professionals and on the public record.
Otherwise, even a prime minister will have difficulty eradicating the suspicion that the businessman was not the only one to receive favors during those meetings.