The Costliest Call Nochi Ever Made

When Nochi Dankner picked up the phone to call Mozi Wertheim, the owner of Coca Cola Israel and also the chairman of the Channel 2 broadcaster Keshet, he didn't realize it would be one of the most expensive phone calls in his life.

Dankner - or Nochi, as everybody calls him - simply meant to exploit his status and contacts in the business community, to explain to Wertheim what was what.

To put it otherwise, he warned Wertheim that if Keshet aired the investigative journalism show Uvda ("Fact") about the near-accident of an Israir jet on the ground in New York, then Israir would sue.

When Nochi, who among many many other things owns Israir, personally calls to say that he means to sue, everybody knows that he's deadly serious.

It worked, too. Wertheim intervened and the show was postponed.

But the call may have another effect that Nochi had not meant to achieve at all.

It may yet spur the watchdogs into taking action that should have been begun 11 years ago, but which they avoided taking. The action is for the watchdogs to ponder a question: should Israel, a tiny country to be sure, enact laws to restrict bodies or persons who have too much economic power?

 In 1995 the first Brodet commission, headed by David Brodet, recommended that a government panel be established to examine that very issue. The Brodet commission felt that Israel's two big banks, Hapoalim and Leumi, had become entirely too powerful. It consequently forced them to sell their holdings in non-bank corporations in order to reduce their domination of the business sector.

The directive related only to banks Hapoalim and Leumi, and was specifically based on their conflicts of interest in financing corporate Israel while owning shares in giant companies themselves. How for instance could Bank Hapoalim own the Delek energy empire while extending credit to rival company Paz?

But the rationale of the Brodet committee goes beyond the banks, and its report says so explicitly.

The problem of power concentration also applied to holding companies in general, and mainly, to holding companies that own stock in banks, said Brodet et al. Their power begged questions, for instance, how somebody is supposed to compete with a body owning 700 companies and producing 5% of Israel's GDP (which had been Bank Hapoalim's case back then)? How does its tremendous power affect its relations with the regulator, for another matter?

These are knotty questions, which is why Brodet and his panel recommended that another committee be formed. That second committee's mandate would be to formulate an amendment to Israel's Antitrust law, enabling the watchdog to impose restrictions on parties that had, simply, become too powerful, not only in response to concerns about anticompetitive behavior.

Naturally no such committee was ever formed, so no answers have been forthcoming to the above knotty questions.

What makes the situation all the knottier, is that there are no answers to these questions elsewhere in the world either. Most modern economies that boast antitrust laws are big ones well blessed with competition. They can't even conceive that a single body would have that much sway over the entire economy. Nor does the problem exist in potentially similar places like Scandinavia's countries.

It doesn't exist, because the corporate and government ethic in the Nordic nations wouldn?t allow a focus of power to disrupt competition or government. "It isn't done," as the British say, no matter how powerful or networked you may be.

Things that "are not done" include calling the owner of a TV broadcast company to quash a negative inquiry into one of one's companies. That wouldn't happen in Britain or Scandinavia, but it can happen here. Because it can and has happened here, the question about limiting economic power must be examined very carefully, and most specifically: Shall Nochi Dankner, via IDB, an enormously powerful holding company with an arm in every sector, be allowed to buy a controlling interest in Bank Hapoalim, Israel's biggest bank?