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With Google Event, Israeli PM Bennett Repeats His Mistake With Facebook

Bennett is about to be the guest of honor at a Google event. What is the Antitrust Authority or the Tax Authority supposed to think?

Omri Zerachovitz
Omri Zerachovitz
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An influencer takes a selfie with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at Facebook's offices, in August.
An influencer takes a selfie with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at Facebook's offices, in August.Credit: Chaim Tzach / GPO
Omri Zerachovitz
Omri Zerachovitz

Google has mounted a massive Israeli ad campaign on websites, in newspapers and on massive billboards over the Ayalon Freeway. Each ad stars the director of a start-up, who describes how Goggle’s tools have helped their company grow. “Google is proud to help 1,500 Israeli startups dream, build and grow," the ads say.

The timing of the tech giant’s campaign is no coincidence. It is valued at nearly $2 trillion, and its stock has been traded over recent weeks at historic heights. But criticism of Google and the other giants is growing. U.S. President Joe Biden, for example, has appointed some of big tech’s strongest critics to key positions in his administration.

Google and other big tech corporations once enjoyed the halo of innovation, but a few years ago, the realization already began to sink in that they are too independent, use their power and money to curb the competition and squeeze out all the personal information possible from their users, which they sell for enormous sums.

The power of Google in online commerce is so great that its ad campaign is ludicrous – one might think Google is working in a competitive market and start-ups that want to reach clients digitally can choose among 10 significant platforms. Of course, Google owns some of the most popular services in the world – a search engine, a cellphone operating system, email and video site – leaving its competitors in the dust.

Google Israel CEO Barak Regev at a conference in Lod, in 2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Any start-up that needs online advertising in order to grow depends on Google. At the same time, tech giants make it difficult for young start-ups to compete with them; they have so much pull that companies cannot raise funds for certain ideas out of fears that the giants will come up with something similar. Google is now being investigated for compromising competitiveness and privacy. The ad campaign is probably not directed at start-ups; after all, they don’t really have good enough alternatives to advertise.

But if it isn't start-ups, when who is the target of the campaign? The workers, of course. Google wants to grow in Israel at a time when there is a dearth of workers and many options for potential employees to choose from. Criticism of Google probably limits the potential employee pool and the corporation wants to minimize the damage.

The campaign is also directed at the public opinion, not to mention decision makers, and no one is more suited to help it improve its public image than Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. While he’s not very popular in the polls, the public counts in his favor that he is a successful high-tech entrepreneur. He's ready to share his credit in this field with a tech giant, and it seems that he is still a start-up entrepreneur at heart – the kind that can't say pass up a meeting with the CEO of a giant.

A man uses his laptop at Google's offices in Tel Aviv, Israel.Credit: Nir Keidar

A huge achievement for Google

This week, Bennett is expected to make his way to Tel Aviv as the guest of honor at an event organized by Google, a powerful private corporation with abundant interests vis-à-vis the government. Nevertheless, the Prime Minister’s Office allowed Google to compile the guest list itself, and settled for giving it their stamp of approval.

The same hierarchy is written into the text of the invitation as well: It opens with "Barak Regev, CEO of Google Israel, is pleased to invite you to an intimate CEOs’ event – an open conversation with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.” Only after that comes Bennett’s turn, who invites participants to ask him questions and speak about various issues relating to the industry.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at a cabinet meeting in November, in the Knesset in Jerusalem.

If Bennet wants to talk to the foreign directors of R&D centers or start-up entrepreneurs, he certainly can. In fact, just last month, he hosted a forum of growth companies in his office (and interestingly, they were asked to come to Jerusalem). They were joined at the meeting by Science, Technology and Space Minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen as well as the director general of the Israel Innovation Authority, Dror Bin. That is, it was a professional meeting.

For Google, this is a huge achievement. It appears to be in charge at a time when it needs the Israeli government and positive public opinion. Oracle is now fighting to subvert Google’s win of the tender to provide cloud services to the Israeli government; Google is dealing with investigations and fearing regulations around the world, both with regard to antitrust concerns and harm to privacy. In Israel, the tech giants have thus far gone unchallenged. Foreign R&D centers, among them Google, have faced a negative reception in Israel, which is already showing the beginnings of attempts to rein them in.

Bennett made a similar mistake in August, when he met with social media influencers to encourage coronavirus vaccinations. The meeting was held in the offices of Facebook, the social network that is apparently the most fertile ground for conspiracy theories and fake news about those same vaccinations.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Facebook Israel CEO Adi Soffer-Teeni, in the company's offices in August.Credit: Chaim Tzach / GPO

Now, as Bennett declares in the invitation, he wants to hear from the CEOs “How all of us can help in the effort to increase human resources in the high-tech market.” If the prime minister wants to delve into this issue, he certainly needs to hear how the growth in the number of foreign R&D centers in Israel influenced sharp competition for employees.

Is the place to do this an event organized by Google itself? Absolutely not. And what message does the Prime Minister’s Office convey to the officials in the Tax Authority or the Antitrust Authority, for example, when he himself makes a pilgrimage to the tech giants?

In response to the report on the conference TheMarker published last week, the Prime Minister’s Office said: “The high-tech sector is a huge growth generator for the Israeli economy, and one of the basic policies of this government is to raise the rate of workers in high-tech. Meeting this objective requires working together with the high-tech sector and its representatives.

"The meeting in which the prime minister is to participate includes a wide spectrum of representatives who will express the needs, opportunities and challenges of the entire sector. The participation of the prime minister in the meeting was approved by the relevant legal officials, in keeping with the rules and directives of the attorney general."

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