A Davos Meeting, Lobbyists and Diplomats: Netanyahu-Uber Ties Revealed

A Shomrim investigation into the Uber Files reveals the extent to which Uber used connections, pressure, and lobbyists as part of its efforts to penetrate the Israeli market, fighting Israel’s taxi unions and even going as far as reaching out to diplomats and pro-Israel Americans

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Netanyahu (C) clashed with Katz (L) over Uber during a cabinet meeting. Netanyahu accused Katz of being in the pocket of Israeli taxi drivers; Katz called out Netanyahu's ties to foreign businessmen
Netanyahu (C) clashed with Katz (L) over Uber during a cabinet meeting. Netanyahu accused Katz of being in the pocket of Israeli taxi drivers; Katz called out Netanyahu's ties to foreign businessmenCredit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Uri Blau
Uri Blau
Shomrim
Uri Blau
Uri Blau
Shomrim

Internal email correspondence between Uber officials exposes the extent of connections that the company forged with then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office during the same years it was trying to enter the Israeli transportation market.

This insight into the company’s global business practices is based on a massive leak of its documents – 124,000 in total – obtained by British newspaper The Guardian and referred to as The Uber Files. The Guardian shared this leak, covering a period from 2014 to 2107, with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and, through that organization, 180 journalists from 44 media outlets worldwide, including the Washington Post, Paris-based La Monde, and the BBC. Shomrim, through journalist Uri Blau, is the Israeli representative on the project.

Netanyahu met with Uber officials, expressed his support for the company being allowed to operate in Israel and clashed with his transportation minister, Yisrael Katz, over the issue. The director-general of the PMO under Netanyahu, Eli Groner, gave the company recommendations as to which messages would resonate best with the Israeli public and how to handle the Israeli media. For reasons best known to him, Groner also asked Uber officials to ensure that future communications were sent to his private email address, rather than his government email. Netanyahu, Groner and Katz all declined to respond to this article.

In Israel, Uber's former CEO forged ties with Netanyahu, then the prime minister, and even mulled reaching out to pro-Israeli congressmenCredit: Seth Wenig/AP

Among the revelations contained in the leak is that, in various countries, including France, the Netherlands, Belgium, India, Romania and Hungary, Uber operated a mechanism known as the “kill switch,” which allowed it immediately to delete any information that could be of interest to local authorities and regulators. On the Israeli front, the leak reveals Uber’s efforts to penetrate the local market and the expansive network of connections, pressure and lobbying in which it engaged.
A meeting in Davos

Uber launched its efforts to enter the Israeli market in mid-2014 and almost immediately ran into vehement opposition from then-transportation minister Katz. According to Uber officials, Katz’s opposition stemmed from his close ties with taxi drivers, who are considered influential members of the powerful Likud Central Committee. The solution, according to Uber, was to go through the prime minister’s bureau. By mid-2015, according to the leak, one senior Uber official had met with someone at the prime minister’s office – but the records do not make it clear who the meeting was with.

To secure a meeting with Netanyahu, Uber officials used all of their connections in Israel. Once a date was set for the meeting, which was to be held at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January 2016, the company began meticulous preparations. In an email to colleagues, the CEO of Israel at the time, Yoni Greifman, wrote that he was preparing for a meeting the next day with a senior in PMO. He described him as a friend and promised that he would ask him how to influence the prime minister.

Another internal Uber email came with an attachment that included a survey of the company's obstacles in Israel and the goals of its meeting with Netanyahu. The survey said that Israeli civil servants were in favor of a dialog over regulating ridesharing services and that the company had good relations with professionals from the Transportation Ministry. It went on to describe Katz as the main obstacle since he was not even willing to meet with Uber and had taken a very strident position against the company. The document added that his opposition was almost certainly inspired by the powerful taxi lobby and his own personal connections.

Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Davos in 2016. He met with Uber officials that year at the World Economic Forum and told them the issues they faced in Israel were the result of the taxi drivers' political powerCredit: חיים צח / לע"מ

The goals of the meeting with the Israeli prime minister were made quite clear: building a relationship of mutual trust; securing his support in terms of exerting political pressure on the transportation minister; and stressing that Uber would reconsider any future investment in Israel in light of the negative atmosphere it was encountering.

The meeting between then-CEO Travis Kalanick and Netanyahu was seen as a success within the company. One of the leaked emails had an attachment showing the handwritten notes taken by one of the people present at the meeting, which included quotes allegedly from Netanyahu. According to the notes, Netanyahu also told the Uber CEO that his transportation minister was acting out of foreign interests because of his ties with taxi drivers. Netanyahu was quoted as saying “we will break the resistance” and urging Uber to work in tandem with him.

On January 24, 2016, just a few days after returning to Israel, Netanyahu raised the issue of Uber at the weekly cabinet meeting, openly clashing with Katz. “Yisrael,” he said, according to media reports at the time, “you have to ensure that there’s competition.” He added that he had met with Uber’s CEO in Davos.
According to the reports, Katz did not hold back in his response: “I don’t have a problem with Uber – as long as they operate legally.” Katz continued: “My job is not to look out for foreign tycoons, but for Israelis. Competition needs to be fair and effective. I advanced reforms for the good of the Israeli people.”
According to the leaked emails, Uber officials were delighted by the spat between Netanyahu and his transportation minister. Mark McGann, Uber's head of public policy for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, noted with satisfaction in an email that Netanyahu doesn’t waste any time.

Talking points

The angry exchanges between Netanyahu and Katz quickly became a long email chain within Uber, with the subject line “BB vs. Katz at the Government Meeting Today.” That exchange brings to light differences of opinion within Uber as to the correct strategy for best leveraging the situation to the company’s advantage and the direct line that Uber had established with the most powerful person in Israel.

While McGann and others were keen to ensure that they would not lose momentum – especially in the media – they wanted to proceed slowly and, most importantly, in coordination with the prime minister’s bureau. That line was led by McGann, who wrote at length in one email about his contacts in Israel and urged his successor in the position to maintain them. He boasted that he had developed extensive and strong relations with the PMO, adding that the person replacing him at Uber could count on him to give his advice or to relay a message to the prime minister’s bureau.

The meeting between then-Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and then-Israeli PM Netanyahu was seen as a success within the companyCredit: בלומברג

According to the leaked emails, the opposing view was held by Uber Israel’s CEO, Yoni Greifman, who believed that the media storm over the cabinet spat between Netanyahu and Katz could be the turning point for Uber in Israel. He wrote to colleagues that he had been approached by several media outlets and was planning on talking to them all to maximize the impact.
But McGann stopped him from doing so. He reminded his Israeli colleague that they had agreed to work in tandem and that while PMO was promoting the requisite regulatory reforms, Uber would send people to Israel to look into a possible research center. But he insisted that the company should not be handing out gifts before it sees any results from the Israeli side and that it should not place itself at the epicenter of the clash between Netanyahu and Katz. He added that this does not mean there should be no media presence, but it should be carefully managed. He added that he would contact Netanyahu’s bureau chief and ask what he believed would be the most effective path forward.
In another mail, sent to fewer people, McGann is a lot less diplomatic and said that trying to restrain Greifman was exhausting. He also warned that if the company were to be dragged into the dirty political infighting within the Likud, both sides – Netanyahu and Katz – would use the company to their own ends.
While the argument was still raging, Greifman informed colleagues that Groner’s assistant had contacted him. According to Greifman, he told him that the prime minister’s bureau was keen for Uber to be prominent in the media and even suggested which messages to push: ridesharing is a proven model for reducing the cost of living, and it works just fine on a global level; that it is the perfect model for Israel and will lower transportation costs; that Uber believes that the regulator must decide which model is best suited to Israel.
McGann asked Greifman to wait a little longer but, the next day had changed his tune. He informed colleagues that he had spoken to Groner and that now was the right time for Greifman to talk on the record, but cautiously, to the media. McGann added that Gruner had told him that the Israeli side needed it to be done now, so in his opinion, that is what Uber should do. Incidentally, Gruner reminded McGann in one of his emails that it was important that Netanyahu emerge well from the whole thing – rounding it off with a smiley face emoji.

Stay out of jail

The massive leak from Uber reveals that proposed legislation, which was drafted by the rideshare company itself and which would have regulated its operations in Israel, was submitted no fewer than three times for Knesset approval – with each version of the bill almost identical to the previous one. The bill was submitted by Knesset members from several parties for the last time in October 2021. It was recently reported in financial newspapers that Uber is again preparing to enter the Israeli market after its previous efforts failed.

A criminal investigation was launched by the Transportation Ministry against Uber, its Israeli CEO Yoni Greifman (pictured), and drivers who worked with the companyCredit: Tomer Appelbaum

Uber began operations in Israel in 2014, but the relatively small population and regulatory difficulties meant that, for the company, Israel was among the third tier of countries that it sought to penetrate. Paradoxically, efforts a year later by the Transportation Ministry to block Uber led the company to declare Israel a higher priority. In the summer of 2015, McGann, Uber's regional head of public policy, wrote an internal email in which he said that since “Tel Aviv is on fire,” he wanted to be CCed on anything to do with Israel.

The conflagration he was referring to was a criminal investigation launched in mid-2015 by the Transportation Ministry against Uber, its Israeli CEO Greifman, and drivers who worked with the company. An internal email from the company’s legal adviser detailed what was happening: “Two investigators from the Transportation Ministry came to our Israel offices for two or three hours… Usually, investigators come accompanied by police officers, but out of respect for Yoni [Greifman], whom they have met before [...], they came unaccompanied.” According to the email, the investigators examined a large number of documents, made copies of some, and asked for details about drivers and vehicles. Greifman, the mail explained, was summoned to a further investigation, which would address “suspicions that Uber was operating a transportation company without authority or a permit from the Transportation Ministry.”

Eli Gruner, who was the director of the Prime Minister's Office at the time, helped coordinate talking points to the media, according to leaked emailsCredit: אוהד צויגנברג

Uber officials took the investigation very seriously indeed. “ [I] don’t want our guys getting put in jail,” McGann wrote. In a different email, various courses of action were discussed, including talking to pro-Israel members of the U.S. Congress with whom the company had close relations. In the end, however, Uber brought out much bigger guns: it hired Covington, one of the leading law firms in D.C.

In an exchange of emails, Uber officials presented their Israeli problem as they saw it and explained the service they needed from Covington. “The Ministry of Transport has come crashing down on our heads, and they're threatening criminal charges against our GM. We need somebody to make a fairly high-level phone call (think Minister of Transport or higher) to urge folks to calm the fuck down at a minimum until after the election is over so we can have a proper conversation,” one of the emails says. Uber officials did not shy away from talking directly about the Transportation Ministry investigation, saying that, when it came to ridesharing, their operations in Israel fell in “a gray area.” However, they insisted that the company did not collect payment from passengers and that it paid its drivers by the hour and not by the journey. “(The Transportation) Ministry [is] reacting way more aggressively than would normally be expected. Taxi is very plugged in in Tel Aviv… with elections in a couple of weeks looking for a temperature-cooling device more than a permanent solution.”

Former Israeli envoy Ron Dermer was also contacted to help Uber. He says he never lobbied for the firCredit: PERRY BINDELGLASS

The person selected for the mission was senior Covington counsel and former top diplomat Stuart Eizenstat, whose previous roles included White House Domestic Affairs Advisor to President Jimmy Carter and U.S. Ambassador to the European Union. The Covington website says that Eizenstat’s work for the company “focuses on resolving international trade problems and business disputes with the U.S. and foreign governments.”
On a personal level, McGann did not have a good relationship with Eizenstat: “As a person, unpleasant, gruff dude,” McGann wrote in one email, however, “as a professional, quite effective.”
Indeed, Eizenstat did prove to be effective and his activities, as reflected in the emails, provide a rare example of the behind-the-scenes machinations to which the public is hardly ever exposed. According to the leaked internal emails, Eizenstat was very quickly in contact with Dan Shapiro, who was the American ambassador in Tel Aviv at the time, and with Ron Dermer, Israel’s envoy in Washington D.C.
At least according to Eizenstat’s reports back to Uber officials, communications with these two diplomats were informal and friendly. According to one of Eizenstat’s briefings, Dermer asked to send the background information to his private email address “to assure faster processing by him.”
In a description of one such conversation between the two, Eizenstat wrote that he had asked Dermer to get the Foreign Ministry involved in halting the Israeli investigation. The same information appears in a background document that he claims was sent to the ambassador, in which it was written that the Foreign Ministry must intervene to halt the investigation.
“Dermer was sympathetic, is a free-market advocate, and interested in encouraging investment in Israel. Said he suspected it was a pre-election effort to win support from the cab driver’s union,” was Eizenstat’s summary. “He promised to ‘get right on it,’ ‘get a sense’ of what was behind the MOT investigation, and to more broadly ‘check-into’ the whole situation.”
According to the emails, the conversations with the American ambassador also went well. Uber’s guidelines were shared with Eizenstat, who in turn shared them with Shapiro: It is a key interest of the United States that American companies are treated fairly; the United States calls on the Transportation Ministry to engage in a dialog with Uber before taking any unfair measures against the company and its employees; Uber should not be a victim of the upcoming Israeli election, and the Transportation Ministry must refrain from taking any decision that would restrict the policy that the next government might want to promote.
In a briefing that Eizenstat sent to his client, he wrote that Shapiro had told him that “‘We want to help a U.S. company’ but need to be careful when it is a criminal case.” Eizenstat then wrote that he “explained that at this point it was only a criminal investigation and that no one has been charged.”
Shapiro asked exactly where Uber was registered, whether it was, in fact, an American company [it is registered in the Netherlands – U.B.] and whether any American citizens were in danger. Eizenstat looked into the matter and responded that Greifman was a dual Israeli American citizen. According to Eizenstat’s email, Shapiro agreed to look into the matter with embassy staff and added that there was no need to involve the State Department. He also offered to meet with Uber officials in Israel. The leak also includes exchanges of emails within Uber setting up such a meeting.
The impression given by Eizenstat’s emails is that both the ambassadors were sympathetic to him and Uber’s complaints. At the same time, it is important to note that the emails do not make it clear what, if anything, Dermer and Shapiro did after these exchanges.
Two years after the exchanges with the ambassadors, in mid-2017, criminal charges were brought against Uber, Greifman, and several other company officials in Israel, accusing them of operating without a license to transport passengers. The indictment was based on material collected in 2016 and 2017 and made no mention whatsoever of the 2015 investigation. An examination of the material included in the investigation shows that the indictment is based almost entirely on the work of “volunteers” from a rival company – Gett, formerly known as Gett Taxi – who placed orders for cars with Uber. Lawyers representing Uber were furious at the cooperation between the Transportation Ministry and a rival company and argued that the indictment was politically motivated and was selective enforcement. In the end, the ministry rescinded the indictment against Uber drivers and suspended proceedings against Greifman and the company in exchange for payment of a fine of 112,000 shekels.
In his response, Dermer stated that he has never lobbied the Israeli government on behalf of an American company. He added that, on occasion, American companies contact the Israeli embassy in Washington over matters relating to their business. Because of the strategic relationship between Israel and the U.S., Dermer added, Israeli officials listen to the arguments of these companies even if they have no intention of changing policy or using their influence – and there is nothing wrong with this. Moreover, he claimed, strengthening ties with the private sector is part of the embassy’s mission.
In relation to Uber, Dermer said that he did not recall the details since so much time had passed and that his involvement, if there were any, was minimal. “I believe that I met with representatives of the company at the embassy in Washington on one occasion, but I do not remember what issues were raised there,” he said. He added that, in all probability, he relayed the information, and that was where his involvement ended.
Dermer also said that he has known Eizenstat for almost 40 years, and “he was even at my bar mitzvah.” “At no stage, during my tenure as ambassador to the United States did I work on behalf of Uber or any other company. It is simply untrue. Throughout my service, I only worked to promote the interests of the State of Israel,” he said.
Shomrim sent a series of specific questions to the Transportation Ministry regarding its investigation and the collaboration with Gett. The ministry’s response included a reference to a recently approved emergency plan for dealing with traffic congestion and the ministry’s support for ridesharing. With regard to the specific questions submitted, the ministry said that “as a rule, we have no intention of responding to the operational methods of the ministry’s supervision and enforcement officials – certainly not with regard to any specific case.” Gett did not respond to requests for comment.
Uber’s Israeli representatives were asked a series of detailed questions, but the company opted to respond with a general statement that is designed to be published by all the media outlets involved in the Uber Files project. Jill Hazelbaker, a spokeswoman for Uber, acknowledged “mistakes” and “missteps” that culminated five years ago in “one of the most infamous reckonings in the history of corporate America.”
She said Uber completely changed how it operates in 2017 after facing high-profile lawsuits and government investigations that led to the ouster of Kalanick and other senior executives. “When we say Uber is a different company today, we mean it literally: 90 percent of current Uber employees joined after Dara [Khosrowshahi] became CEO” in 2017, Hazelbaker said in a written statement. “We have not and will not make excuses for past behavior that is clearly not in line with our present values.”
She said that Uber has not used a kill switch to thwart regulatory actions since 2017 and that “no one at Uber has ever been happy about violence against a driver." The company dismissed any suggestion that it received special treatment from Macron or his cabinet and emphasized that no one who works at Uber today was involved in building relationships with Russian oligarchs.

Greifman told Shomrim, “I have no idea where you’re getting this information. I have no idea what you are talking about in most of these cases.”
Shomrim sent Dan Shapiro several requests for comment, but no response was forthcoming.

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