Bottom Shekel / The U.S. Investors Left, and Took Their Checks and Balances With Them

In ordinary times, Bank Hapoalim CEO Zvi Ziv's orderly replacement by his heir Zion Keinan could be seen as a reasonable, obvious move. After all, the bank has suffered a management crisis over the past two years: U.S. investment losses of $1.3 billion could be seen as enough reason to oust a chief executive.

The management crisis has been manifested by a mass departure of managers, and of course, the bank's loss of its leading position to Bank Leumi after two decades of being Israel's largest bank.

But in the midst of these breakdowns are a few other worrying issues, and it's not clear that replacing the CEO will resolve them.

As CEO, Zvi Ziv cannot escape responsibility for the bank's situation, but one may also wonder about the contributions of controlling shareholder Shari Arison and chairman Danny Dankner.

The moment that marked the beginning of Bank Hapoalim's deterioration came two and a half years ago, when the central group of shareholders who bought the bank from the state in 1997 began to disintegrate. As long as control was in the hands Arison Investments, the Dankner family's Salt Industries and four U.S. investors, the bank had stable management and financial expertise.

This core was instrumental in maintaining checks and balances within the bank's management, and provided the bank with stability, the most important commodity in bank management.

The disintegration began when the U.S. investors decided to sell their holding. The Dankners joined them (after a power struggle with Shari Arison), and since then the bank has been in upheaval, manifested in a series of serious mishaps.

It began with Arison's impulsive decision to oust Shlomo Nehama as bank chairman; then the peculiar appointment of Danny Dankner as his successor (only shortly after Dankner and Arison had been exchanging letters from their lawyers); external director Amir Barnea was kicked off the board; failed investments in the U.S. market; and one professional after another resigned, including Shy Talmon, Jacob Rozen and other bank officers.

Now comes the capricious resignation of Zvi Ziv on the day the 2008 financial report is being finalized. Meanwhile, Arison has made a few appointments to the bank's board, some of whom lack financial or management expertise.

Every move by the bank in recent years has been clumsy.

Everyone who has left has departed with a kick on the rear and a reputation marred by the heavy losses in the U.S. But they have nothing to worry about: They are taking with them well-padded retirement packages, and experience that will let them easily find another job.

They are not the problem. The problem is that Bank Hapoalim has no checks, balances or direction. It leaves us with the uncomfortable feeling that it is in capricious, unstable hands.