One on One: Gambling on Haniyeh

888.com founder is shooting to sweeten the peace pot for the Palestinians.

By RUTHIE BLUM LEIBOWITZ
December 13, 2006 22:40
Shaked, Avi 298.88

Shaked, Avi. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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On-line gambling casino 888.com founder Avi Shaked has been causing quite a stir in more ways - and circles - than one. Which may be why the normally media-shy multi-millionaire is making an exception and breaking his custom of keeping his cards close to his chest. He does, however, make it clear that he doesn't want to discuss any details that have been emerging about a possible takeover of the company he has turned into a virtual gold mine over the past 11 years. This is a deal I can live with, since it is not the state of his business that has prompted the following hour-long interview, but rather the business of state he is proposing: a $1 billion private equity fund for the Palestinian Authority, on condition that it reach and sign a peace agreement with the Israeli government. Just when you thought you'd heard it all... But the 53-year-old self-proclaimed "socialist through and through" is hopeful, in spite of the odds. "Nobody has tried to sit with the Palestinians and talk about all of the problems and how to solve them," he claims cheerfully, choosing his words carefully and expressing them articulately. Nor is he deterred by past attempts to do precisely that - including his own. A long-standing member of the Labor Party (who even ran in the last Knesset elections), Shaked joined Yossi Beilin in the Geneva Initiative, following the collapse of the Camp David talks. Shaked became friendly with Beilin in the 1970s, when they were both members of Labor's Young Guard. Shaked was then working as an Israel Aircraft Industries engineer. When he left IAI for the private sector (he spent the following 15 years as the Israel director of MCI), he turned his attention away from politics and focused solely on business. Now merging the two - which he previously concluded "don't mix" - the married father-of-three, who resides in Savyon and has a summer house in Nahalal, says he decided to extrapolate what he has learned from the business world and apply it to the diplomatic arena. When and how did you come up with the idea to propose a billion-dollar money-for-peace deal with the Palestinians? Six months ago, when Warren Buffet purchased Iscar. That deal created a kind of euphoria throughout the country, making us forget the rest of our problems for a moment. So I said to myself: "Wait a minute. This might be just what the Palestinians need - a major financial deal which gives them the opportunity to extricate themselves from their dead-end situation." But, because other such ideas had been attempted in the past, I had to come up with something different. I had to treat the proposal as I would a business proposition - to forge a deal by delineating milestones. I told the Palestinians that in order for them to receive money from the private equity fund, they have to reach a peace agreement with Israel. At the first stage, when they sit down at the negotiating table, they will receive 10 percent of the fund - $100,000,000. This money will be invested in Palestinian industry. Entrepreneurs will have to submit requests and proposals, as is done with any fund. At the final stage, when they actually sign a peace agreement, the rest of the money - $900,000,000 - will be invested. Whom did you contact in the Palestinian Authority to propose this deal? I phoned Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and spoke to his office manager. We spoke for about an hour. He said that my proposal was very interesting. I said that I'd let him mull over it for six months. When the six months were up last week, he discussed my proposal in an interview he gave to Palestinian TV. Channel 2's Yoram Binur asked for my response. That's when I realized the offer had been made public. Simultaneously, however, Haniyeh was in Iran and declared that Hamas would never recognize Israel. As in business, so in politics: Deals are usually made between competitors, each of whom keeps his cards close to his chest and remains steadfast in his positions prior to the closing of a deal. I hope that declarations such as Haniyeh's are meaningless and that logic will eventually prevail. Without sitting down to talk, there can be no solution. I don't know what the solution will ultimately be. I'm not getting into that, because it is neither my prerogative, nor my desire to influence the outcome. It's anybody's guess what the outcome will be. What is clear is that in order for us to know whether an agreement is possible or not, the two leaders have to try to bridge the gaps between them. If they don't try, they're certain not to succeed. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says that he is willing to negotiate with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, but not with Haniyeh. Why did you phone the latter, rather than the former? I view the PA as I do a company. Just as there is a CEO at the head of a company, there is a prime minister at the head of a country. And, just as business deals have to be negotiated between CEOs, political negotiations have to be conducted by heads of state. Using your logic of two heads of state negotiating a deal, wouldn't you have to enlist Olmert for your endeavor, as well - or at least make him privy to - or approve of the proposal you made to Haniyeh? Because I'm an Israeli, I'm convinced that all Israelis genuinely want peace. Yet each of us has a different approach as to how to achieve it. My prime minister, too, has a path. It's called the road map. In contrast, the Palestinian prime minister hasn't yet proposed any path, or even first step, that indicates what his view of how to achieve an agreement is. My prime minister has already said that he would negotiate under the conditions he set forth. The problem is that the Palestinian prime minister so far has no vision even to set forth conditions. All he does is negate the whole thing. I thought it appropriate, therefore, to move him in that direction, by giving him an incentive that would make the lives of the Palestinian people better - i.e. investment in industry - so that there would be no more Kassams, so that there would be no more casualties, so that we would no longer fire on them and they would no longer fire on us, to put an end to this terrible decades-long conflict. Why do you assume that Haniyeh has an interest in making the lives of the Palestinian better - or in safeguarding their lives altogether? It would seem that anyone who holds suicide bombing politically and religiously sacred doesn't place human life high on his agenda. I cannot answer a question that relates to another people. I can answer about Israeli citizens and of the members of my own family. What other people think and why they do what they do is something I don't know about. I wasn't born there [in the PA]; I didn't live there; I don't know them. I am not familiar with their mentality, their religion or their lifestyle. As a hugely successful businessman, you undoubtedly never initiate a deal without first familiarizing yourself completely with your potential partner's history and "mentality." How can you be devising an economic scheme as a political incentive from a position of ignorance - hence inferiority? The latest economic buzzword in the world today for [stimulating growth] in Third World countries is "micro-payment." It is a method which says, "Give the person in Africa or in South America - who earns a dollar a day - five dollars to establish his business, and watch how those five dollars jump-start him. And give that five-dollar amount to a few million people, and watch how they suddenly begin to sprout new business initiatives." Prior to the micro-payment system, the established method was "private equity." This was based on investing money into companies in various parts of the world, waiting for the investment to bear fruit and then withdrawing the earnings by selling off the part that was the original investment. Actually, Palestinian industry doesn't belong in the Third World category. It is more enlightened. When business ventures start growing there, they will be more similar to Israeli businesses than to businesses in Africa. Why? I think they're more similar to us [Israelis]. We have employed tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions, of them over the past several years, and they've learned from us. They've acquired the knowledge that will enable them to undertake such a venture with more of a Western than an Eastern approach - more similar to Israel's than to that of Jordan, Iraq and Iran. Your premise is that all peoples are motivated by the same things, which is why you are applying your business experience to the realm of politics and diplomacy. What about religion? Do you really believe that radical Islam can be dealt with as though it were a business? I separate religion from business. I don't think that when you do business with a person of a different religion, you examine his beliefs. When you do business, you look at where the person came from, what he is bringing to the table and what his added value is. This is never connected to his religion. It is only connected to his assets. And assets are irrelevant to religion anywhere in the world. The bottom line for us is human life. And when I live in Israel and a resident of Sderot gets killed, and children are hiding under their desks at school [because of Kassam rockets fired from Gaza], I don't think religion is relevant to Israel in this context. In this context, I see only life and the will to live. I project this onto the other side [the Palestinians], without entering into the nuances you're raising. I believe that it is the desire of all people to live and support themselves and their families with dignity. Suppose you are right about people's desire to live their daily lives with dignity and financial stability. Yet not all people have leaders who want or enable them to do so. Not all people live in democratic societies where their desires or opinions count. The Palestinian people - whatever their wants or their needs - have no say in the deal you are offering. In any country that has elections, the people choose their representatives. And voters do not err. I wasn't elected to the Knesset not because the voters were wrong. They deemed me unsuitable. And I don't disagree with them. Because the Palestinians elected their prime minister, the burden of choice is on them, and the burden of proof is on their leaders to deliver the voters what they asked for. I believe that the voters' desire to get up in the morning and go to work will influence their leaders. For your proposal to have any effect, then, wouldn't you need first to persuade the Palestinian people that it is in their best interest to oppose the stated goals of their prime minister? Every politician knows how to express his ideas in such a way that leaves room for him to change them. To return to the analogy of a merger between two competitors. Each has to struggle for his survival. And the struggle for survival in the business world is cruel. If you want to survive, you have to produce more and better products than your competitors. Otherwise, you can find yourself overtaken. When that happens, you change your mind about your daily operations and try to explain why a different model is better. The same thing applies to politicians. Politicians have to deliver the goods they were elected to provide. But there's always this wiggle room they leave for maneuvering. I hope that the wiggle room both leaders have will enable them to negotiate with one another. How can you guarantee that the Palestinians won't agree to your offer, take the first $100,000,000, and then never sign an agreement - or sign one and not honor it? We've seen the way the Palestinians treat peace agreements. Most agreements between countries are upheld. And in light of what you are suggesting, I trust that when it conducts negotiations, the Israeli government will create the necessary checks and balances to ensure that the agreement is honored and preserved. So far, that hasn't seemed to work, though. The difference between what I am proposing and that which has been tried in the past is the concept of milestones - stage one, stage two, etc. And that at each stage, the other side's behavior is examined to see whether it lived up to its end of the deal. This is something that hasn't been done before. It hasn't? What about Oslo? Camp David? What about the road map? Camp David didn't result in an agreement. And the road map - which has a number of milestones - hasn't been completed. Even the first milestone wasn't reached. Till today, nobody has tried to sit with the Palestinians and talk about all of the problems and how to solve them. Excuse me? Nobody has tried this? No. We never managed to produce a document that summarizes the whole conflict. The most significant attempt was at Camp David, and that didn't end up being signed. And the difference in this case is? Two new leaders, that's the difference. In the past, there were Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat, who didn't manage to reach an agreement. And now I'm calling on Haniyeh to sit down with Olmert to try to reach an agreement. Do you believe that money, or a flourishing economy, is enough of an incentive to counteract political and religious ideology, based on the right of return, or on the pre-'67 - or even pre-'47 - borders? When people are killed on either side of the border, there is incentive to reach an agreement. You can't put a price on human life, whether Israeli or Palestinian. If and when it is possible to pay money so that people don't get killed, I'm willing to pay it. But in order for people not to get killed, you have to move them beyond their current way of thinking - to get up in the morning and go to work, not get up in the morning and fire Kassam rockets. And when they have employment, there is no doubt that their brains will no longer be focused on how to produce terrorism, but rather on how to earn money for themselves and their families. Billions of dollars have been poured into the PA from Europe, the US and even from Israel. Yet the money went either directly into the pockets of the leaders or into the terror industry. All the initiatives up until now have been ad hoc solutions to specific problems. And the more humanitarian they were, the more they provided only pinpoint solutions. I'm trying to create a new momentum that will put an end to the conflict. At the moment, Haniyeh isn't even able to reach an agreement with Abbas. How can he reach any agreement with Olmert? As I said, I don't know the Palestinian nation or the workings of its political parties. I do understand that the government is one that was elected. As such, it is the body I am calling on to sit down with Israel's elected leaders. Were you always in the "peace camp"? I have been a member of the Labor Party for about 25 years. I began my career in the Israel Aircraft Industries as an engineer. That's when I became a member of the Young Guard - with Haim Ramon, Nimrod Novik, Amnon Neubach, Avraham Burg, Nawaf Masalha and Yossi Beilin; it was really fun being with that group. But, when I left IAI for the private sector [he was the Israel director of the American communications company MCI], I decided that politics and business don't mix. The others remained completely political. I was 100% business-minded. Our paths crossed again after Camp David. When Barak didn't succeed in achieving a peace agreement, it was the first time in all those years that I jumped into the water, and helped Yossi Beilin with the Geneva Initiative. After that, I supported Amram Mitzna, and hoped he'd succeed. Then came Amir Peretz. You said that you decided that politics and business don't mix. Do socialism and business mix? Socialism is in the genes; it's part of your soul. Either you are one or you're not. Being a businessman is irrelevant. So, you're a capitalist in business and a socialist at heart? You don't have to be a capitalist to be a businessman. I'm a socialist through and through. Olmert claims that the Israeli economy is in better shape than ever before. Do you agree? Completely. Who deserves the credit for that? Former finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu? If you look at the overall development of the country, you can see that the citizens of Israel deserve the credit for their contribution to the economy. It's you and me and everybody else who gets up in the morning and goes to work. Surely it's also due to policy - to the extent of governmental interference in the marketplace. It has more to do with progress and development, all of which we've achieved through the sweat of our brows since the establishment of the state. And there's no doubt we will continue to progress and develop. •

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