Amid Israel's Political Upheaval, Only One Thing Is Eternal: Ben-Eliezer

Prime ministers change, parties rise and fall, ministers come and go, but Benjamin Ben-Eliezer is a solid rock.

Even the most seasoned of the world's business leaders, people who have seen crises, experienced meltdowns and overcome obstacles, have never seen anything like the drama that has enveloped the global economy in the past six months.

All at once stock markets the world over dropped 50%. Prices of raw materials soared by hundreds of percent, only to fall back overnight. Banks collapsed like dominoes. Governments are forced to throw out their dearest economic tenets and adopt new paradigms. It would be impossible to overstate the sheer uncertainty, the chaos, of the times.

But among the ruins there are a few solid rocks, standing staunch and firm.

Lehman Bros. went bankrupt. Bear Stearns is history. Merrill Lynch shook, broke and lost its independence. AIG, the biggest insurance company in the world, was effectively nationalized.

But Fuad, our Fuad, stands eternal. He is a cabinet minister. He will always be a cabinet minister.

Israel has undergone every thinkable political upheaval in the last six months. The Labor Party fell like Citi shares. Avigdor Lieberman rose shot like an option on U.S. treasury bills. Kadima, which had been striding toward the winners' circle, stumbled at the finish line, like John McCain. But somehow, against all odds, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer is a minister.

Okay, he isn't minister of national infrastructure anymore, which is quite the revolution. But industry and trade is a portfolio too, one completely suited to our Fuad, whose economic policies bear remarkable resemblance to his physiognomy: large, steamrollerish, unwavering, rough as sandpaper and gleeful.

At first glance the fact that Fuad eventually found his way back into the cabinet yet again is a mere anecdote that proves nothing beyond his astonishing capacity for adapting himself to the fashion and the times, despite his corpulence.

In fact, however, Fuad is the symptom of a syndrome: paralysis. Until the system of government in Israel changes, then changes of government will simply bring more of the same.

Ariel Sharon replaces Ehud Barak, who is himself replaced by Ehud Olmert, who is succeeded by Benjamin Netanyahu, also known as Bibi. But Fuadalism remains.

What is Fuadalism? It is the way Israeli democracy really works. It is the mechanism that keeps our Fuad in office, in one capacity or another.

To understand the true essence of Fuadalism, let us revisit a column I wrote a year and a half ago, when the state comptroller investigated the Israel Electric Corporation ("A nation of Fuads," November 27, 2007). The comptroller found that while Fuad was minister of national infrastructure and was supposed to be pushing through reforms at the IEC, he was in fact busy arranging affairs for political cronies. Fuad himself, or people from his office, asked the company to hire this or that personality or give this or that Friend of Fuad a raise or a promotion more than 100 times in 2005 and 2006.

Take Z., who began working at IEC in April 2005. Happily, Z. is a member of the Labor Party central committee and also chairman of a party branch. The IEC director of human resources wrote on his job application that Z. was "associated with the infrastructure minister."

Then there's H., another Labor Party stalwart, who once served as the minister's aide and as a deputy mayor. He began working at IEC in September 2005. On his resume, the company's chief of logistics and assets wrote, "Our minister requests that you try to help. Perhaps a special contract or agreement for a time."

Fuad is the ultimate grassroots campaigner, shaking hands and kissing babes. He's the king of the primaries, the prince of the big unions, and for decades he's been the master of the vote contractors. That's why his seat at the cabinet table is assured. Fuad's ideology is neither left nor right: It's Fuadalism. Which means the use of force and of public resources in order to preserve his power.

What sort of industry and trade minister will Fuad be? Will the Fair Trade Authority, which he created last week and is supposed to begin operating this week, truly take the big monopolies by the horns? Will it confront the cartels and assault the oligarchs who squeeze the consumer, be they banks, telecommunications providers, insurance companies or car importers?

It's more likely that Fuad will keep talking about the need to spend public money on specific sectors - the many for the few. The masses shoring up Fuad's friends.

Fuadalism and oligarchy are how Israel's economy is run. The economy is driven by two tremendous powers: the strong pressure groups in the public sector, on the one hand, and the tycoons on the other hand.

Prime ministers may change. Parties rise and fall. But the big 20 families and the 50 strongest labor unions ride on. And on and on.

Ministers come and go. Reformers are ground down by the sandpaper of reality. Only the ones who find common ground with the interests of the powers that be, manage to return to sup at the table of cabinet again. And again.