Taking Stock / Olmert's Public

"In some situations, decisions need to be made that won't be popular with the public. Raising bread prices is never an easy matter. It is easier to lower prices, tariffs and taxes than to raise them." (Industry, Trade and Labor, and Communications, Minister Ehud Olmert addressing the Knesset Finance Committee on Monday.)

Yes, it seems we were wrong about him, Industry and Trade Minister Ehud Olmert. All that censure of his decision to hike bread prices at this time of economic stress was misguided. Olmert, it transpires, is a courageous politician and statesman who's under fire solely and only because he is prepared to make unpopular decisions.

Yes, we made a mistake.

The mistake was that the popular press suddenly remembered to report on his decisions after he touched the bread. Thing is, if you check his decisions since he took his multiple jobs last year, you find that it's systematic with him.

The real question is how you define "public." We think there is a fundamental mistake right here: there are "publics" to whom Olmert lends an ear, and if we shine the spotlight on these "publics," we'll find that his decisions are very popular, indeed. Contravening what the minister told the Knesset Finance Committee on Monday, the "publics" Olmert heeds adore having tariffs and prices raised, the more the merrier. Let's look at a few examples.

The "public" of media company owners is a clique of a few moguls, CEOs and major shareholders in a few huge companies. This is certainly an influential public, indeed.

This public has never been happier. Since Olmert took the Communications Ministry, life is much simpler. You go to Jerusalem armed with an expert opinion, send a few lobbyists and Olmert sets up a deal. Whether it's to block the long-distance market to competition or prevent cellular tariffs from plunging, nothing stops the tireless minister when it comes to protecting this public.

The "public" of cement company owners. Again this is a small club. In fact, its members are only Nochi Dankner and his partners. The Nesher cement monopoly has been fighting for years to block dumping imports of cement from Turkey. It applied pressure to all the industry ministers over the years, but all understood that when it comes to a basic of the construction industry, which cement certainly is, raising prices would be too harsh a blow.

Import dumping contravenes international law, if it hurts the industry in the country importing the product. Olmert's decision could be defended on those grounds, but it is apparently no coincidence that the Antitrust Authority opposed adding a tariff to Turkish cement. Yet Olmert heeded his public of Nesher and did not quail.

The "public" of Salt Industries shareholders, which consists mainly of Dankners. The State Comptroller bitterly criticized the Israel Land Administration decision giving the Dankners tremendous building rights on the lands they own. The comptroller, Eliezer Goldberg, ruled the process leading to the deal had been flawed and insufficient. He estimated that the construction rights the Dankners received were worth $90 million. Attorney general Elyakim Rubinstein wrote to the ILA that the agreement with the Dankners' Israel Salt Industries improperly granted the company excessive rewards, in contravention of proper administration.

Yet Olmert stood firm, granting the Dankners their rights in defiance of the attorney general.

The "public" of Coca-Cola shareholders, or, actually, Mozi Wertheim, who also owns United Mizrahi Bank and Keshet broadcasting. The Finance Ministry ruled that Coca-Cola Israel should not receive state aid to relocate its plant from Bnei Brak to Ashkelon. The attorney general also objected to the lavish NIS 70 million gift.

But Olmert shrugged off the paper-pushers, government treasurers and lawyers alike. He lent his support to his public, namely the mayor of Ashkelon, who wanted the bottling plant, and Wertheim, who wanted the grant.

The "public" of huge marketing chains and retailers is a little bigger, it's true. It includes the major shareholders in Blue Square Israel, Supersol, Strauss-Elite and Osem Food Industries. They want Olmert to quash that pesky law forcing them to mark prices on all products. They want shoppers to have difficulty comparing prices, which would make it easier to raise them and widen their profits.

Olmert isn't concerned about price rises or diminishing competition, because his attention is on his public, the powerful owners of the big retail chains.

There are other publics to whom the minister devotes his attention. Not all receive mention in the press. His decision to position himself as the address for anybody not satisfied with rulings by Antitrust Commissioner Dror Strum attests best of all to which public he is affiliated.

Behind the cases in which Olmert chose to intervene in antitrust decisions, we may find his desire to succor this or that public smarting from a trustbuster slap, a public that wholeheartedly supports competition and lower prices - in somebody else's back yard.