Taking Stock / Rothman the Mule

Shlomo Rothman refuses to learn.

Yesterday top officials at the Israel Electric Corporation opened a frontal attack against the utility's new chairman, who, they charge, "refuses to learn how Israel's electricity sector works."

They launched their barrage after the chairman publicly raised doubts about the utility's development and investment budgets. In talks with the IEC management, he said he didn't see that the IEC really needed the new power stations, on which it plans to invest billions.

He thought the company might be spending too much on creating excessive electricity reserves.

You don't need to be an expert on Israel's electricity sector to agree: The management is right. Shlomo Rothman simply doesn't get it, and he refuses to learn.

Rothman refuses to learn what the former IEC chairman, Adi Amorai, disclosed in a rare moment of frankness a year ago: The IEC customarily squanders hundreds of millions of shekels on needless investments and top-price equipment.

Apparently Rothman never heard of the "Rogosin lands scandal": how the late businessman Ezra Harel persuaded his good friends at the IEC to buy land from him in Ashdod for a quarter-billion shekels, cash. The deal was fast-tracked as though it were the last piece of land in the Land of Israel. Ten years later the IEC has yet to find a use for the land.

Rothman refuses to understand the tremendous personal interest the IEC management and workers have in that NIS 5 billion a year development budget.

The bigger the development budget, Shlomo, the more power and flexibility the management has; and the more livelihood there is for the workers, because much of the development budget streams straight into their salaries.

Rothman refuses to grasp the principle of managing the IEC:

Nobody will complain if you waste billions of shekels on over-investment. But if you try to save money and, heaven forfend, there's a quarter-minute blackout somewhere, the entire company and political echelon will be screaming for your head.

Rothman refuses to realize that the knowhow he brings from banking works against him, if anything. He mulishly insists on looking at the IEC's balance sheet and taking fright at its gargantuan debt, which grew from NIS 35 billion to NIS 45 billion in just four years. He insists on asking outlandish questions, such as how the debt is to be serviced, and nitpicking on parameters such as efficiency, capacity, utilization and savings. He doesn't understand that the debt interests the management, workers or politicians supervising the company about as much as the snows of yesteryear.

Rothman still has not understood something the IEC management and workers know well: The debt does not matter because if the crunch comes, the government will simply let it raise electricity prices. True, the IEC operates as an independent company, but its vaunted independence relies on having captive customers who can be mined at will.

Rothman hasn't understood that his role is to go with the flow, to cozy up to management and workers, to approve giant investment and development budgets, to fight the evil little gnomes at the treasury who are trying to introduce competition and logic into the electricity sector, and meanwhile to wallow in his plush job.

Rothman refuses to grasp that if he manages to satisfy everybody, the day he departs the company he will have a lot of friends, some very rich friends, some suppliers to the IEC, who will remember him fondly and wish him well.

But Rothman will get the point soon enough. When he discovers the Prime Minister's Office's staunch support for the IEC, when he sees the Knesset members groveling before the utility, he will get it: When the entire establishment supposed to supervise the IEC is weak and corruptible, he will realize he is alone in the battlefield.