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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Accountant General Dr. Yaron Zelekha harshly attacked the lack of action in the government apparatus that has allowed the monopoly of the large Israeli banks, which he said was more severe than corruption.
"The lack of government action is the cause for malfunctioning in the market such as the over-concentration of banks in Israel," Zelekha said Monday at the Israel conference on real estate, taxes and finances organized by the Netanya Academic College. "The problem here is the lack of recognition by the government in preventing and dealing with market failures, which is more severe than instances of corruption here and there."
In January, Zelekha had charged that Israel was the most corrupt country in the West, but that most of its civil service was honest and of high quality.
Also speaking at the conference, attorney Ram Caspi, attacked Zelekha for his ongoing fight against corruption in the government and the public sector, which he claimed was causing damage to the economy and halting the work of the decision-makers and policy-makers in the civil service.
"If Zelekha is continuing to attack the government and the civil service, he cannot remain in his position and thus he should get up and leave," said Caspi after Zelekha left the conference. "You cannot serve the public and the government and at the same time attack it. He needs to be fired."
Addressing the monopoly of the two largest banks, Zelekha said retail banking in Israel suffered from a massive over-concentration that was among the highest in the world.
According to Finance Ministry statistics, Bank Hapoalim and Bank Leumi account for 60 percent of the assets held by the country's banks, making the Israeli banking system one of the most highly concentrated among Western countries.
Zelekha added that the number of players in the banking system was not the issue but rather the advantage or monopoly the large banks were enjoying.
"Only the Postal Bank, which is larger than all of the small banks combined, can compete against the large banks. The Postal Bank has 700 branches nationwide, but does not exploit its infrastructure and thus I call upon the Treasury to take action and speed up the approval for the Postal Bank to offer financial services," said Zelekha.
The Finance Ministry had come to an understanding with the Bank of Israel over the financial services the Postal Bank could offer. The Treasury, though, still needs to approve the entry of the new postal company into these new services, which would integrate the services of the Postal Bank into the commercial banking sector together with the medium-sized banks. The plan is for post office branches to provide services such as deposits, insurance sales and brokerage through the infrastructure of the Postal Bank and provide more exposure and channels for the medium-sized banks to win over customers.
In addition, Zelekha said the lack of competition among banks had caused an increase in the cost of credit, as a result of which, households paid much higher interest than the business sector, even though business credit was riskier.
"The banks in Israel are thieves and tellers of tall tales and elsewhere in the world they would be put in jail," said attorney Shlomo Cohen, head of the Lawyers' Association in support of Zelekha's claims.