Barnea, the US-based Gabriel-Cerberus consortium has "every intention" of going through with the purchase of the 10.1 percent option provided for in the tender for the purchase of Bank Leumi. "We have 18 months, but I would like to do it as fast as possible," said J. Ezra Merkin, managing partner of the Gabriel Capital Group, which won the tender in November, together with Dan Quayle's Cerberus Capital Management. Merkin spoke following a Prime Minister's Office ceremony Wednesday marking the transfer of Bank Leumi shares from state to private hands. The consortium offered NIS 2.47b. for 9.99% of Bank Leumi, far beyond what the state expected to receive for the asset, significantly boosting the bank's market value. The purchase of the added 10.1% stake, which would give Gabriel-Cerberus a 20% controlling interest in the bank, is awaiting regulatory approval. Invoking the Hanukka motto "a great miracle happened here," Merkin told those gathered that his group sees Bank Leumi as "the flagship bank, perhaps the flagship company, of Israel" as well as an asset of Am Yisrael - "not just another bank in another country." Merkin also stressed the general importance of long-term investments in Israel to his firm. "The well-being of Israel is no small matter for my partners and me," he said. Finance and Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Ehud Olmert said the group's purchase should not only be seen as an investment in Bank Leumi itself, "but also as an investment in the State of Israel and in the economy of Israel," that will encourage others to examine prospective investments in the country. "It is an important day for the Israeli economy that investors like yourselves are coming to invest in Israel. Your investment is a statement of confidence in the Israeli economy and in the opportunity to do successful business in Israel. We are very happy that people of your caliber will now be a part of the economy of Israel," Olmert said. Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer praised the deal as putting an end to more than 20 years of state ownership in Israel's banking system, and said lessons to be learned from "this sad and expensive occurrence" are the need to regulate the banks and keep inflation low since, "without the hyper-inflation of 20 years ago, none of this would have happened." Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he never doubted the state would be able to sell the bank. "I believed from the beginning that the right path would be to sell off the controlling stake. Even when there were doubts about whether there would be buyers, I had full confidence ... and great belief in our ability to privatize the controlling stake instead of distributing options," he said.