Bottom Shekel / The Natives Get Flags, the Tycoons Get Millions

Bank Hapoalim is bellicose towards its smaller clients, confining its generosity to the richest cream of the Israeli business world.

Bank Hapoalim's public relations machine grinds out jolly pictures of the bank's managers at charity events, or fighting the good fight against the carnage on the roads. But once a year, when the bank publishes its financial report (in late March ), it holds a deadly serious press conference.

Hapoalim's managers review the bank's superb results ("provision for doubtful debt is down" ), and discourse on relevant subjects ("concerned about a Greek debt downgrade" ). They never forget to praise the staff ("our most important asset" ) and thank each other.

The annual press conference is bluster, even more brazen than its charities or its inane television ads. You can all but vanish in the vastness of the gap between the image the bank is trying to mold (cosmopolitan, charitable, helping children to read and feeding the poor ), the bank that hands out free plastic Israeli flags on Independence Day and pays to open Israel's museums for free on holidays - and what the bank really is.

It is bellicose towards its smaller clients, confining its generosity to the richest cream of the Israeli business world.

The bank's annual press conference for its 2009 results was held a few months after the Bank of Israel had forced out Hapoalim's former chairman Danny Dankner for allegedly leading the bank down forbidden paths. Zion Kenan, CEO, and Yair Seroussi, thanked Dankner for his "devoted service". "This is the best bank with the best people," they said. Three years ago, Hapoalim suffered vast losses on mortgage-backed loans, its first loss in 20 years. What did its chiefs have to say about that at the annual press conference? "We are an example to the world," they said. "In the test of financial leadership, we receive very high marks." "We are a leading bank." "We developed." "We grew stronger." "We reduced exposure." And, "We succeeded."

This year, the annual press conference, for the 2010 results, was held two months after the police grilled more than 10 of Hapoalim's top managers, including the CEO. Kenan is suspected of breaking the rules in approving a NIS 14 million loan to Danny Dankner. The police recommend charges against Kenan, though the prosecution has yet to decide. This time the bank's bluster at least had legal standing: It can hardly comment on a case in process.

Nor did they discuss the giant salaries they make, except in the context of waiving some of their bonuses for 2010, leaving Kenan with NIS 11.5 million for the year and Seroussi with NIS 13 million.

What were the Hapoalim chiefs thinking when lending NIS 106 million to Maariv? What were Kenan and Seroussi thinking in writing off 60% of it? Why, when it became apparent that billionaire Nochi Dankner is buying Maariv, didn't Hapoalim flex its muscles as it did when the buyer was Zaki Rakib?

The rules of the game are that the small people groan under the weight of their overdrafts and debts and bank service fees, while the darlings of the bankers borrow millions upon millions without collateral. After Kenan was questioned by police, hundreds of people clamored to express their support for him. Not for the officers of law and order.

Yesterday Maariv published an article about Seroussi's presentation to the committee on competition. Seroussi told them that competition is growing fiercer in the banking sector and claimed the banks have excellent corporate governance. Well, as they say, you don't ask the carp if he wants to attend the seder.