In Surprise Move, Lapid Vows to Block Canadian Takeover of Israel Chemicals

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Finance Minister Yair Lapid dropped a bombshell Wednesday in his opposition to the proposed takeover of Israel Chemicals Ltd. by Canada’s Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan.

The freshman finance minister told his top staff that he intends to take a militant stance to preserve Israel’s hold on its natural resources.

“The State of Israel’s natural resources are a public asset, and the Israeli public should be the first to benefit from them,” he said. ICL is a major producer of fertilizers including potash.

In addition, Lapid announced Wednesday that he had decided to establish a public committee to re-examine the state’s rights regarding natural resources under the management of private enterprise.

It is not clear whether the finance minister consulted with anyone before coming to these two decisions. The ministry did not provide any detail on who might be appointed to the proposed panel and which particular natural resources would be the subject of the committee’s deliberations.

Three years ago a government committee headed by Prof. Eitan Sheshinski developed recommendations to revise the government’s share of oil and gas royalties. Sheshinski welcomed Lapid’s announcement that a committee would be convened to look at benefits the state should derive more generally from its natural resources.

“The time has come for a uniform policy on all natural resources,” he said, adding the country had fallen down on the job of managing the resources. He suggested that the new panel concentrates on management of potash and phosphate resources as well as quarries and minerals. The Israel Corporation, he said, bought ICL, which produces potash through its Dead Sea Works subsidiary, when the price of potash was $80 per ton. Now it is $1,600 per ton.

The takeover of Israel Chemicals by PotashCorp would be accomplished through the sale of the Israel Corporation’s stake in the firm. Following Lapid’s announced opposition to the ICL takeover, shares of the Israel Corporation dropped on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, falling 5.9% for the day after the stock price had been relatively unchanged before Lapid’s surprise announcement. The Israel Corporation, which as a 52.3% stake in Israel Chemicals, lost NIS 1.2 billion of its market value in the process. ICL’s stock lost 4% of its value following the day’s developments.

Earlier this week Amir Elstein, chairman of the Israel Corporation which holds a majority of shares in ICL, sat with Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird at Tel Aviv restaurant, presumably to discuss pushing forward the merger. Baird and Elstein previously met in January at the economic summit in Davos.

PotashCorp is the world’s second largest producer of potash while ICL ranks sixth.

It is possible that Lapid’s stance regarding the Canadian acquisition of a controlling stake in ICL will put him into conflict with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. About a year ago, Netanyahu met with the president of PotashCorp and heard about the company’s plans to acquire a controlling interest in ICL. Although Netanyahu is not understood to have expressed support for the sale, he has not publicly opposed it either and did not immediately respond to Lapid’s announced opposition.

At a Labor Court hearing at the beginning of the week, a government representative told the court that no talks are currently underway for the sale of control in ICL to PotashCorp. The hearing was held following a request by ICL management for a restraining order against sanctions by the Histadrut labor federation and the union representing employees at Dead Sea Works to protest the proposed deal. The workers claimed that the sale has already been set.

Last month it was reported that PotashCorp, in its bid to acquire control or outright ownership of the Israeli company, would soon be sweetening its offer in an attempt to soften opposition to the move by company workers and to turn around public opinion. Some of the measures said to be under consideration were commitments to retain production levels and not institute layoffs, adding a cash payment component to the proposed share swap to generate taxable income for the treasury, allocating a larger budget for environmental protection, and cross-listing its own shares on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. This would make PotashCorp, trading at a $35.6 billion value, the largest company listed on the TASE, ahead of Teva Pharmaceutical Industries which is currently valued at about $35 billion.

PotashCorp already holds a 13.9% stake in ICL and requires the Israeli government’s approval to raise its stake above 14%, and again to increase it above 25%. This power of veto derives from a “golden share” retained by the State of Israel when it privatized the company 18 years ago.

Dead Sea Works. Credit: Ofer Vaknin

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