Viewpoint / Time to Say, Enough!'

"They told me Discount is a mess; I have no problem with that. I'm used to buying problematic businesses that other people feared to touch, stabilizing them and making them profitable," Daniel Strauss, one of the bidders for Israel Discount Bank, told Haaretz this week.

Soon after he spoke, Strauss received his first clue to the size of the mess that awaits him if he buys the bank: Twenty Discount branches went on strike yesterday, and additional branches will strike in the coming days. The sanctions followed a meeting Wednesday morning at which Discount workers presented exorbitant demands as part of what they termed "preserving the workers' rights."

Workers' Committee Chairman Ricki Bachar and the workers' lawyer, Benny Cohen, stormed out of the meeting after only half an hour. But first, they presented their demands. Among other things, they said, the purchasers must promise not to sell any of the bank's assets for 10 years, and the state must give the workers a grant equivalent to 40 percent of the sale price.

In other words, the workers demanded that the state sell the bank, give the proceeds to Discount's 7,500 employees and then allow them to continue controlling it anyway. One can assume that if these demands were accepted, all five of the groups that entered the bidding process this week would withdraw. Then the bank would remain in the hands of Bachar & Co. - the hidden sixth bidder.

Everyone knows that Bachar's demands are meant to frighten off potential bidders - even those who like messes. Even Strauss surely wants at least a smidgen of freedom to sell assets and manage the bank as he sees fit. Nor is Bachar the first to present the bidders with demands: He was preceded by Supervisor of Banks Yoav Lehman, who imposed several quite stringent conditions of his own, including a five-year prohibition on withdrawing dividends that derive from asset sales.

Though Bachar's ultimate goal is to torpedo Discount's sale, his demands are based on sound internal logic. Thus, for instance, Bachar understands that if the new owners were to sell one of the bank's assets, such as Discount New York, that would create two problems for him. First, it would reveal to all and sundry that Discount's subsidiaries are far more profitable than the bank itself, and that the most inefficient part of the Discount conglomerate is its operation in Israel. Second, the sale of a major asset such as the New York subsidiary would bring the bank hundreds of millions of dollars, with which it could finance mass layoffs.

People involved in the bank's affairs say that, in order to streamline it, the new owners would have to reduce its work force by 1,000 to 1,500 people. Since it costs about NIS 700,000 to fire each bank employee, there is no way to finance layoffs on such a scale without selling one of the bank's assets.

The workers' demand for part of the sale's proceeds also did not come from nowhere. Bachar is merely improving on the system invented by the bank's chairman, Arie Mientkavich, its CEO, Giora Ofer, and other senior executives who arranged golden parachutes for themselves prior to the sale. Most of the bank's executives have arranged matters such that if the new owners fire them, they will receive several million shekels to soften the blow. True, Mientkavich and Ofer lacked the gall to demand 40 percent of the sale's proceeds, or anything even close, but the approach is similar: Privatization is dangerous for workers and managers alike, so both must provide themselves with appropriate insurance. The problem is that the premiums on these insurance policies are paid by the public, which owns the bank. It is hard to improve on a policy like that.

Discount's workers also have another demand from the bank's purchasers: that they not change the bank's collective agreement for 10 years. This agreement anchors all the benefits that the workers have obtained for themselves over the years.

Among these benefits, one stands out: The bank pays its workers' health tax. This tax, imposed in 1995 to finance the national health insurance program, amounts to 4.8 percent of a worker's salary, and paying it costs the bank some NIS 80 million a year. Yet this is hardly the only unusual benefit: The bank also, for instance, covers tuition for its workers' children.

Over the years, Bachar has achieved enormous gains for his workers, at the expense of the bank's profitability and its economic value to its owner, the Israeli public. Now, he wants to continue this tradition by making the bank equally valueless to anyone who might want to buy it.

This is where the government, and particularly Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, must say "enough!" You ate, drank and made merry? Leave a little for the rest of us.

If Bachar stopped to think a moment, even he would realize that it is better for the bank to be sold to one of the five foreign investors now bidding than to allow the sale to fail - because if the tender flops, Discount will probably be sold to another local bank. And that would result in far more massive layoffs than would Discount's continued existence as an independent bank.