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Idan Ofer. 'Always optimistic'
Photo: Yaron Brener
Idan Ofer's PA travels
Israel Corporation's controlling shareholder talks about Zim's activity in Palestinian Authority, money transfer limitations and future plans: 'We intend on supplying Palestinians with electricity'
In days of high tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, a different type of relations between the sides is revealed. It involves Israel Corporation's controlling shareholder, Idan Ofer, who is in talks with the Palestinian Authority to sell the Palestinians electricity from the power station in Mishor Rotem.

 

In general, Ofer plans to boost economic cooperation with Palestinian businesspeople in the PA and in Arab countries.

 

In a special interview with Yedioth Ahronoth's economic supplement Mamon, Ofer talks about his special business relations with the Palestinians and promises that "the cooperation will mature into many other fields very soon."

 

Israel Corp. is already in talks to expand the company's business to the PA.

 

For more than a year now, Ofer has been leading a business strategy according to which peace must start in the business world. The move began about a year ago, when he invited Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and the CEO of American business bank Goldman Sachs to his home for dinner.

 

The meal was also attended by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Bank Hapoalim Chairman Yair Seroussi and Ofer's partner and Better Place founder, Shai Agassi, who discussed ways to improve the economic ties between Israel and the PA.

 

During the evening, complains were made about the limitations on fund transfers and foreign currency exchange between the sides, as part of the anti-money laundering regulations in Israel and laws aimed at making it difficult to fund terrorist elements.

 

The Zim shipping services company, owned by Idan Ofer, has been conducting business with the PA for years, conveying goods to Palestinian merchants. But the company's management has received many complaints on the inability to transfer funds through bank accounts between companies in the PA and Israel. In particular, the Israeli banks create difficulties in clearing.

 

"As far as we're concerned, Zim today is the center of our activity in the PA with Palestinian clients whom we help import and export containers. Israeli banks don't honor the Palestinians' fund transfers," says Ofer.

 

"About a year ago, I went to Ramallah to meet with the economic leaders in the PA. "I held a Zim clients' conference in Ramallah, and businesspeople from Hebron, Nablus and other places in the West Bank arrived.

 

"They all told me about their difficulties to transfer funds through Israeli banks to Zim for containers supplied to the PA. I immediately instructed the company to open an account in the Arab Bank in Ramallah in order to make it easier to convey goods to the PA.

 

"Since then, business has been growing. Zim today is accessible and required there. We are also planning to supply electricity and sign additional deals."

 

'We'll be like South Africa'

Nonetheless, Ofer predicts an economic disaster for Israel in September, if a Palestinian state is declared without a peace initiative on Israel's part.

 

"We'll be like South Africa," he says. "There will be economic sanctions against Israel and I don't know how to deal with it. What happened in South Africa could happen here too: The economy crashed, companies failed to recover and money was smuggled out. It's an automatic pilot situation, and it will happen without a road map with the Palestinians.

 

"As an international businessman," he adds, "it has been made clear to me several times that if the situation here fails to improve, our companies, which employ thousands of people, will suffer."

 

He says that several years ago he traveled to North Korea, a country subject to sanctions. "People there have nothing to eat, and I don't want us to reach the same situation. If we don't make peace with the Palestinian world, this is what will happen here too eventually."

 

How is Israel Corp. preparing for such a catastrophic scenario?

 

"I don't know how to prepare for it and don't want to prepare for it. I have no answer. I believe the government will come to its senses."

 

Earlier this month, Ofer took part in an event inaugurating a new private Israeli peace initiative led by former Shin Bet chief Yaakov Perry, former Minister Moshe Shahal, and slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's son, Yuval.

 

"Economically, Israel's situation is perfectly fine," says Ofer, "but this is the first time the economy is combined with a fateful geopolitical issue ahead of September, and all the leaders of Israel's business community share the same opinion."

 

How did you join the initiative?

 

"I was invited to the forum. I came quietly, hardly said a word, and listened to what people think about the diplomatic direction.

 

"I have no political agenda. I'm just fearful and anxious about the place we're in. I fear what is expected and I'm not just worried about myself. The moment the companies' volumes of trade are affected, there will be a transverse effect on the entire economy."

 

Have you tried to convey a message to the prime minister or finance minister?

 

"No. I'm not a representative of the business community, and I don't want to be. The Israeli government must do what was done in Singapore, where the president issued an order to invest on the other side of the border and it worked. Singapore's relations with its neighbors are excellent and mutual. This theory must be implemented in Israel as well."

 

So what is your business strategy in the face of all these fears?

 

"Constantly increasing our working rate with the Palestinian Authority. It's a business pleasure working with them."

 

Have you created personal relations with the PA economy chiefs?

 

"Of course, it's a matter of personal connections. I met Bashar al-Masri (who recently tried to buy the Mount Zion project in Jerusalem) several years ago through a common acquaintance. He invited me to a party he held at his home in Ramallah, and there I met other local businessmen. Not Facebook, but networking. Old fashion. There are also other people from the Palestinian telephone company I am in good relations with."

 

And what about relations with Palestinian politicians?

 

"I don't want to. I talk to businesspeople. I have no interest in politicians, apart from the dinner with Fayyad. As a businessman you must find the easiest way to do successful business, and when businesses talk, you suddenly see amazing results."

 

What does it feel like?

 

"There's no hostility at all. They are very enthusiastic about working with Israeli businesses, but the Israeli government's activity against the Palestinians is always in the air."

 

And what about Gaza?

 

"As far as I know, we don't do business with Gaza. Ramallah is responsible for what is happening in Gaza, not Tel Aviv. Gaza is something the PA must deal with, not Israel or businesspeople. There are some from Gaza who are completely reasonable. I don't have a concrete idea about what exactly is going on there."

 

And what about joint projects in Arab countries?

 

"I'll think about ways to collaborate with Palestinian businesspeople in Arab countries. The fact that I travel there doesn't mean I work there, but I would like to work in Arab countries on many issues like water desalinization, and we must remove the Palestinian sting. Everyone there wants to do business with us but asks that we solve the Palestinian problem first."

 

So you're a little optimistic?

 

"Always optimistic."

 

Aren't you afraid that your activity will damage your image?

 

"I don't do business for an image. In 99.9% of the cases I don't work for an image but for what is good for business. I have never done business for an image, and that's the way it'll stay.

 

"I'm convinced that there are those who will say my move is fantastic, and those who'll say it's horrible. Will it make everyone change their minds? I don't think so. But a small step is important too."

 

 

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