Three years ago, one of Israel's businessman convened all his friends, partners and colleagues for a farewell party at his manse. When everybody had gathered, he told them something they all knew already, from reading the papers: that he had decided to wrap up his business in Israel and move to London.
"This is a country that eats its people alive," he dramatically proclaimed. "Bureaucracy is the ruin of everything. Business can't be done here."
"Hmph," sneered one of his childhood cronies. "When he started out forty years ago, he was penniless, orphaned from his father and his mother had a small shop for undergarments in Lilienblum Street, Tel Aviv. He launched company after company and thanks to his remarkable skills, built up wealth of over a billion shekels. Now he, of all people, is telling me that he's deserting Israel because you can't do business here?"
That anecdote came to mind when reading yesterday that the building contractor Sam Olpiner, who had been president of the Association of Contractors & Builders in Israel, had demolished his business abroad and was resuming investments in Israel.
Olpiner confided to Ofer Petersburg of
that as a "man with experience, I advise Israeli contractors not to invest any more in London and abroad in general. Prices have shot up to the skies and it doesn't pay to work there. In Israel, on the other hand, prices can only go up."
The green, green grass somewhere else
That's nice. Maybe it's even true, although we are far from sure that Israeli real estate prices are about to take off again.
But irrespective of the valuation of Israeli property, the problem here is that we just can't overlook Olpiner's campaign in recent years against initiation and investment in Israeli real estate.
He missed no opportunity to climb on a soapbox and explain why he was wrapping up his real estate business in Israel and turning his attentions to the world beyond.
When he kicked off his campaign our years back, he explained that the high interest rates on mortgages, and taxes in Israel, incurred nothing but losses for builders.
So what's changed, Sam?
Did interest on mortgages drop? It did not, if anything it shot up to a high of 7% not seen for years. Okay, so did taxes drop? They did not, on the contrary. Ah, then did demand for housing increase? No, no, the economy is stuck in recession that is deepening from day to day. Did the cost of money decline? Heavens no. The real estate market is being strangled by the worst credit crunch it has ever felt.
So why did you come home, Sam?
Allow us, with all due caution, and without hinting at having any information on your business abroad, to postulate a few possible reasons why contractors who called to shun investment in Israel in recent years are making an abrupt about-face and scampering home.
The hard, hard reality of the foreign taxman
Like all those Israelis who bought properties in London, Prague, Toronto, New York or Miami, they are learning how tough it is to do business in a strange country, where the culture and rules of the game are different.
They are discovering that Israel isn't the only country in the world tied up in red tape. They have found that other countries also levy taxes, holding and other fees, and that the obligations of landlords are just as onerous than in Israel, that land that sucks the marrow from its people's bones.
They are discovering that the real estate markets in Europe and parts of the United States are astonishingly complex, that there is fierce competition over deals, that profit margins are narrow and that the players are diverse, strong, and wily.
They discovered that in America and Europe, you can't "solve" problems with a wink and a nod to an old army buddy at the Israel Land Administration or ministry, or the bank. Far from home, they don't even know whom they're supposed to talk with.
They discovered that in Israel they're big fish in a small pond, but overseas they're pathetic little minnows. They realized that in Israel they make splashes on the front pages of the business press, but abroad they aren't even a brief, and nobody even knows how to spell their names.
In short they learned that after all their whining and plaints about the difficulty in doing business in Israel, some of which is absolutely true, at the end of the day they know how to deal with Israel's bureaucracy, politicians, and regulators, and the fact that the Israeli market is small and insular is exactly why they find it so easy to make their fortunes here.
So play it again, Sam, from Rishon Letzion to Ramat Hasharon. This is your territory, this is where you made it big and can do it again. Your grass is greener at home, Sam, and the next time you run into some bureaucratic obstacle and start to lose your temper at the local planning committee remember that in London, you didn't exactly make hay while the rain fell.