The Turkish Option

Leading Israeli businessmen, from Israel Corporation's Sammy Ofer to Africa Israel's Lev Leviev are seeking opportunity across the Mediterranean.

Alpaslan Korkmaz, president of Investment Support and Promotion Agency of the Republic of Turkey, has spent the last two days in Tel Aviv meeting with representatives of dozens of leading Israeli companies, including industry leaders.

Sources near the discussions say that some companies are in the early stages of examining their business potential in Turkey, but others have reached advanced stages of investment, including the acquisition of rival companies in Turkey and locating new customers.

If the interest Israeli companies are showing in various projects translates into action, the amount involved could be billions of dollars in investment for Turkey, Korkmaz says. As said, one of the companies looking at the potential is Lev Leviev's real estate giant Africa Israel, which might expand to Turkey through its east European arm.

Business barons Sammy and Idan Ofer of The Israel Corporation have been "burned" in Turkish tenders in the past, but that doesn't mean they're deterred.

"Sammy and Idan Ofer met with the Turkish prime minister," Korkmaz confirms, adding that Ankara's view of the Ofers is highly positive. The prime minister even expressed regret for what happened with the oil refineries tender, he said, adding that a new, transparent one will be held soon and he hopes the Ofers will participate.

In the incident last May, the Turkish prosecutor general indicted several high-ranking officials in the Turkish privatization administration for alleged crimes in the procedure of selling 15 percent of the refinery to Sammy Ofer in 2005. The transaction valued the refinery at $3 billion, but a few months later the facility was fully privatized according to a company valuation of $8.12 billion.

Nor have the Ofers derived much joy from prior investments in Turkey. A year before the refinery fiasco, Ankara bowed to public pressure and canceled the Ofers' victory in a tender to operate the main port in Istanbul. The Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was accused of helping the Ofers win the contract. A spokesman for the Ofers said all their dealings in Turkey adhered to the law.

None of this seems to have deterred the Ofers, though Korkmaz refused to say whether they're actively negotiating any new deals. He can only discuss transactions after the companies announce them, he explained.

Moving on from bad energies to better ones, another leading businessman eyeing Turkey is Yitzhak Tshuva: his Tel Aviv-listed energy and real estate company Delek Group is looking at possibilities in Turkish government projects.

What about financing? Bank Hapoalim already bought a bank in Turkey, BankPozitif Kredi ve Kalkinma Bankasi, through which it's considering the acquisition of a bank in Kazakhstan, for $113 million. Poalim Capital Markets, an investment group that belongs to the Bank Hapoalim group, is in parallel looking at investment possibilities in Turkey on behalf of its clients.

The engineering group Tahal and irrigation-systems giant Netafim already operate in Turkey. Specifically, they've been involved in a vast agricultural project called GAP in the country's southeast Anatolian region. The project aims to achieve sustainable development.

Other luminaries of corporate Israel considering investment possibilities in Turkey include the long-distance communications group Bezeq International, the foodstuffs and dairy company Strauss (which owns Elite of coffee and chocolate fame), hi-tech company Comverse and Ormat Industries, an expert on "alternative" electricity production, mainly geothermal and recovered-heat.

Earlier this week Korkmaz held a press conference, explaining that the Investment Support and Promotion Agency of the Republic of Turkey is the body that handles all the needs of foreign investors in Turkey. The agency team consists of 30 people speaking a combined 10 languages, including Japanese and Chinese, he said.

During the last three years, foreign investors placed $33 billion in Turkey, says Korkmaz. Almost 40 percent of that amount went to the financial sector and 37 percent went into transportation, storage and telecommunications, he elaborates. Industry has attracted $1.85 billion.

Why send a government envoy to Israel to whip up interest? Korkmaz explains that Turkey is interested in the know-how in Israel, and would like to see Israeli companies participate in government projects. In energy alone, Turkey has $130 billion worth of tenders in the pipeline, says Korkmaz. That's a lot of bait with which to catch Israeli companies.