Fuad Says

Did you get stuck in a elevator? Swelter without your air conditioning? Were your plans completely ruined?

Yes: last week many people suddenly remembered why they hate the Israel Electric Corporation, after the serial power cuts, the like of which Israel had not experienced for years. Anger bloomed, accusations flew and the IEC found itself in the fire-line of public debate.

As is not unusual, to debate was shallow; it focused on the chaff and ignored the wheat. It consisted mostly of spinning by the interested parties and little substance.

In case you really want to know what's happening in Israel electricity sector, here is a brief lexicon of terms, courtesy of National Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer (fondly known as "Fuad", who granted TheMarker a long interview last week from the Emergency Electricity Crisis War-Room he set up in Baku, Azerbaijan.

 Ben-Eliezer: "The IEC is a spoiled company that gets everything it wants. It is not right for things like that to happen, even though it involved a rare juxtaposition of circumstances."

Scratch-the-surface interpretation: Fuad is not afraid to take on the Israel Electric Corporation! Or its powerful workers! He will stand tall to defend the public and is not afraid to tell it like it is.

The deeper interpretation: If somebody's spoiled, then there's somebody doing the spoiling. Who spoiled the IEC? Mama? Daddy? Auntie Sue? No, it was every prime minister, every infrastructure and energy minister and almost all the Knesset members who are supposed to be pushing reforms of Israel's energy sector.

Who was it who said, "As long as I live, the IEC won't be privatized"? Hint: it was a portly minister responsible for the energy portfolio, who is considered the best friend of the IEC workers, and he said it in September 2005, moments before the Labor Party primaries.

Ben-Eliezer: "I have established a special team to thoroughly investigate what happened and present conclusions to me."

Scratch-the-surface interpretation: That's our Fuad, a general in reserves and out of them, too. Wasting not a second, Fuad is charging ahead and establishing a team to investigate, to conclude, to oust the responsible parties, and we will forge ahead powered by a better, more modern electricity sector.

The deeper interpretation: Panels of experts, one and all, have warned time and again in the last ten years that the IEC is heading for breakdown unless substantially reformed: it needs to become more efficient, improve, cut costs and increase production. Each and every report was shelved or fudged. The IEC spent enormous sums on experts of its own who produced opposite opinions, whose real purpose was to preserve the company's power.

Ben-Eliezer: "The really hard question from my perspective is where were the board and its chairman, who keep insisting they are the sovereign power at the IEC."

Scratch-the-surface interpretation: Fuad does not shy from pointing fingers at the people to blame! He points straight at the most senior person at the IEC, chairman Shlomo Rothman. That's our Fuad, a fearless politician who doesn't care what anybody thinks about him.

The deeper interpretation: Fuad knows how ridiculous it is to blame the power cuts on the brand-new chairman, Rothman, who has been feuding with the IEC workers from the day he took the job, because he actually does support reforms. Rothman was the appointment of the former Finance and Infrastructure ministers, Benjamin Netanyahu and Eliezer "Modi" Sandberg, and Fuad thinks the power cuts are a great opportunity to try to get rid of that pest Rothman. Maybe get one of his own people into the chairman's seat.

Ben-Eliezer: "I don't understand the company's conduct. I came back to the Infrastructures Ministry and found a company with an inconceivable debt of NIS 45 billion on its neck."

Scratch-the-surface interpretation: The IEC was a great company, a nimble, efficient and competitive one as long as Fuad had been Infrastructures minister. But then a dreadful thing happened: the ministry was abandoned to jokers and the company plunged into the void. Then here Fuad comes back and finds the poor utility has a dreadful debt crushing it.

The deeper interpretation: Fuad left his job as Infrastructures minister in November 2005. He was on the job when the company's debt reached NIS 45 billion. He was there when the IEC chairman warned that the debt would continue to grow at warp speed in the years to come as well. He was there when Standard & Poor's downgraded the IEC's debt to a lowly BBB+ because of its mountainous height and the company's low profitability.

When Fuad was Infrastructures minister, he was told by the Finance Ministry people and other experts that the "low prices" in which the IEC took such pride were a fiction. It mushrooming debt meant that one day, the state would have to step in and give it tons and tons of money, or raise power prices, and by a lot.

Ben-Eliezer: "I do not accept the argument that this was force majeure. This was a mess and I want to know who was responsible for it."

Scratch-the-surface interpretation: Fuad will not let the IEC sell him fairy tales that the power cuts were caused by some external force (the heat). He will get to the root of the matter!

The deeper interpretation: Fuad knows perfectly well that there's only one force majeure in Israel's energy sector, and that's the primaries, in which the IEC has terrific clout. Fuad knows that the IEC has more power and resources than the Infrastructures Ministry does, than the Prime Minister's Office does, and that most of Israel's public bodies do.

Fuad knows that given the resources at the IEC's disposal and its power to give cushy jobs to hundreds of people, consultants and cronies - it has managed to paralyze every body that has ever thought of supervising it.

Ben-Eliezer: "I couldn't sleep the night before my journey and wrestled with that hard question" - he means whether or not to go to Baku - "I don't believe in sitting in mourning by the power stations. I like action and this journey is exactly the kind of action I'm talking about."

Scratch-the-surface interpretation: Fuad is a general and he knows that his job is to focus on long-term strategy, such as traveling to Azerbaijan, a nation of vast importance to Israel's economy, instead of meddling in piffling matters such as protracted, onerous power cuts up and down the land.

The deeper interpretation: The truth is, Fuad could stay in Baku for all it matters. The National Infrastructures Ministry is not champing at the bit to tackle genuine change to Israel's electricity sector, which would involve restructuring the IEC and bringing in new players. It would improve the quality of the IEC and defuse that ticking time bomb threatening to blow up Israel's electricity supply.

Maybe Fuad should take a few more ministers, paper-pushers and regulators who are supposed to oversee the sector to Baku, for a very long time, and let people who aren?t afraid of the IEC lead the reform.

Ben-Eliezer: "I support rights for workers. I have always supported workers and always will."

Scratch-the-surface interpretation: Fuad cares. Unlike the former finance minister, Netanyahu, who was promoting structural reform at the IEC, Fuad doesn't smoke cigars, doesn't live in Caesarea and understands the troubles and travails of the working man. When Fuad approaches reform, he first and foremost thinks of the little man.

The deeper interpretation: Fuad supports the workers who belong to the most powerful unions in the land, workers who are among the best-paid in Israel, workers at bodies with the highest rates of nepotism in the country, workers at companies whose business strategy is focused on gigantic investments - many bloated and superfluous - in order to justify distended workforces employing more and more and more workers (and kinfolk). The other three million workers in Israel, who faithfully pay their electricity bills and who will, tomorrow, be paying the taxes that finance the rehabilitation of the sick IEC, aren't quite on Fuad's mind.