The Honor of Shlomo Nehama

Shlomo Nehama is a man of honor. He has recently expanded his activities beyond chairing the biggest bank in Israel, Hapoalim, to volunteer work. He organizes nationwide educational volunteer drives and discusses matters of national interest. It was once said that he thought of becoming the finance minister.

Public image matters a great deal to Nehama, which is probably why he said a month ago, "The wages and benefits I received were a deviation. There will be no more such high salaries at Bank Hapoalim."

Nehama knows that the wages paid to the top bank executives, which impact management wages up and down the land, gouged a rift in Israeli society. That is why he is trying to patch up the bad impression left by the naked figures: NIS 23 million for himself, NIS 15 million for vice-chairman Danny Dankner and NIS 34 million for Hapoalim CEO Zvi Ziv.

Nehama today is a very rich man. He sold his shares in Arison Holdings for $180 million and can afford to settle for more modest pay in his four remaining years at the bank. But he knows he can't just say things like "deviation? no more" with all that money safely sitting in his bank account.

Them who deserve

It isn't enough. It certainly isn't enough after the top brass at rival bank Discount voluntarily agreed to forgo their excess remuneration. The managers at Bank Discount are a lot less rich than the managers at Bank Hapoalim. At least one of them, Giora Offer, together with Discount's former chairman Arie Mientkavich, can claim credit for turning around Bank Discount, extracting it from a sea of red ink.

If there are bankers who deserve a reward, it's Offer and Mientkavich. But Mientkavich left the bank with peanuts, after intervention by the state, and Offer agreed to forgo his bonus because he understood that it wouldn't pass the test of public opinion. How does that make the public status of the Bank Hapoalim people look?

Zvi Ziv and Danny Dankner mean to stay at Bank Hapoalim for many years to come, and it's not clear they'd be happy to forgo pay. They might not be happy, but Nehama has to make the decision for them. That is what he's chairman for: and he's a man of honor. He is the one who has to set the norms. Especially at Bank Hapoalim, which is the biggest bank in Israel and a guiding light to the entire business sector.

Nehama, in his public position as leader of Bank Hapoalim, has the power to save his honor, and that of us all. He can learn that caps have to be clapped on executive pay and there's no better way to teach that lesson than through personal example.

The Israel Securities Authority may shortly provide Nehama with an opportunity to do so. The watchdog has started to ask just how he, Ziv and Dankner are any better than Discount chairman Shlomo Zohar and Discount CEO Giora Offer, who agreed to waive their bonuses.

The Zohar precedent

A precedent was set with Zohar - the Israel Securities Authority ruled that the wage of the chairman of a public company can be considered an insider transaction if it's enormous, and paid to a chairman who has close personal ties with the controlling shareholder. The same ruling should apply to Nehama and Dankner.

The ISA lawyers have already begun talking with Hapoalim's legal advisers. It would be surprising if they are lenient with Nehama and Dankner after cracking down on Zohar.

In short, it's just a matter of time before the Bank Hapoalim executives are officially directed to waive pay, or in their case, to return it. This is precisely the opportunity for these people, led by Nehama, to prove that they are made of the stuff of leaders. Leaders - who know they made a mistake vis a vis the public, even if they can prove their case in court, and who agree to return the money. Shlomo Nehama, a man of honor, should know it best.