In Defense of Leviev / Miki Rosenthal Missed the Story

"They didn't do anything. They took the money and didn't build." That quote from Miki Rosenthal is the central thesis of his documentary on Africa Israel, shown on the Channel 10 news show "Hamakor" (The Source").

Leviev told tall tales, Rosenthal alleges. Leviev got a lot of money from us based on his stories and stashed it away .

To prove his thesis, Rosenthal went to Russia last week in search of Leviev's assets. What he found was some halted projects, others still waiting for permits and in general a discrepancy between Leviev's status reports and the situation on the ground.

But he needn't have suffered two days of Russian cold to discover all this. All he needed to do was look at the chart of AFI Development's stock, that being the Africa Israel subsidiary through which Leviev operates in Russia.

AFI's market cap fell from $7 billion to $1.5 billion.

Leviev's story maked a great Hollywood script: A young, ultra-Orthodox immigrant starts from scratch in a small diamond polishing business. With vision and courage, he accrues money and buys businesses, companies and properties. At the pinnacle of his success and arrogance he buys a private plane for $50 million and a London mansion for $70 million. A year later his business collapses, taking with it the savings of hundreds of thousands of hapless, blameless folk. That's some story.

But where's the problem? Or, in the words of Rosenthal's documentary: "Where's the building?" Well, there is no building. The documentary proves nothing, and its conclusion is incorrect.

The operations in Russia were not Africa Israel's problem, that's not where our billions went. Quite the opposite: AFI Development's flotation in May 2007 was actually one of Africa's brighter points. The $1.4 billion dollars was raised from big investors on the London exchange, not from Israeli pensioners. Plus, this was a share issue, not a bond issue, and anyone who invested money in AFI had to be aware of the risk he was taking.

The Russia story is fascinating and it films well, but for pensioners, AFI's issue is also one of the redeeming features of Africa Israel, as one of the only assets worth something in Africa's shrinking portfolio.

Moreover, Russia is a country in crisis, and it makes sense to halt projects and put off investments. It even shows Leviev as a calculated and conservative manager, who caught himself at some point in 2008 and started cutting back.

Russia isn't what felled our pensions. What brought Africa to its knees, and is keeping it from repaying its bond debts to Israeli pensioners, was its involvement in the U.S. market. That's where most of the money went.

Africa wrote off $3 billion on its investments in the New York Times building in Manhattan (which cost $711 million) and other insane forays.

Leviev made mistakes, no question about it. His management of Africa was megalomaniac and poor. He bought properties at insane prices at unfortunate timing. But our savings didn't shrink because of fraud or questionable business in Russia.

Raviv Druker's summary is spot on. The negotiations between Africa Israel and its bondholders are of paramount importance, setting a precedent to guide others. That, Druker says, is where the spotlight should be aimed. Too bad he didn't tell that to Rosenthal before he took his arc lights and flew to Moscow.

It's true that the sad folk coming and going from the offices of attorney Lipa Meir, where bondholder negotiations are being held, are not nearly as interesting, and besides, they don't want to talk. But that's the key to this story. These are the people who must decide whether to forgive Leviev and Bank Hapoalim and hurt our pension savings in the process, and it's not certain they are looking out for us enough.