The Israeli Oligarchs Among Us
Tel Aviv – Israel's mining magnates have invested huge sums in African projects, and officials say that construction, pharmaceutical and agriculture companies will not be far behind.
The former ambassador strides across his office next to the diamond bourse in Tel Aviv raring to enthuse about the business opportunities.
After a career in Israel's foreign service, Eli Avidar's job as president of the Israel-Africa Chamber of Commerce requires diplomatic skills of a different order.
“We have to convince our companies and our officials about the African markets.”
Avidar concedes there is still plenty of scepticism about political risk and payment delays.
Asia's expansion into Africa has helped the argument: “When people see Chinese companies taking Africa seriously, they wake up fast.”
Avidar has been lobbying Israel's trade insurance corporation ASHRA to provide cover for more than US$2.5 billion to build a hospital in Ghana and housing in Angola.
They were turned down this year in favour of projects in Asia.
Israel's exports to Africa hit US$1.3b in 2010, compared to US$8.4b to Asia and $12.7b to the United States, says Dan Catarivas, a foreign trade specialist at the Manufacturers' Association of Israel.
Companies such as Shikun & Binui, together with Teva Pharmaceutical, are gearing up for expansion into Africa, says Avidar.
Israel's plans for a hydro-carbon-free economy within 20 years also attracts great interest in African economies struggling to pay for oil imports.
However, Avidar is far less forthcoming about the diamond oligarchs – Dan Gertler, Beny Steinmetz, Lev Leviev and Arcadi Gaydamak – who still dominate Israel's public commercial presence in Africa.
Avidar's reticence may be explained by his other professional roles: he is chief executive of Gertler's Azura Consulting, which manages his mining assets in Africa, and deputy chairman of the Gertler Foundation, which runs social projects.
It also shows how central Gertler is to the business push into Africa
Gertler's friendship with the DRC President Joseph Kabila paved the way to his takeover of the state diamond company, then to multibillion-dollar copper and cobalt mines.
Steinmetz's deal with Lansana Conté's government in Guinea secured rights for blocks valued at US$10b in the Simandou iron ore concession.
Leviev and Gaydamak, who once dominated diamond mining and trading in Angola, fell out and took their disagreement to London's High Court this year.
Neither Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's government nor the regimes in Angola, DRC and Guinea want to probe the deals.
But because Gertler and Steinmetz are in joint ventures with listed companies such as Glencore, Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation and Vale, their operations face scrutiny from shareholders, regulators and lobby groups.
Canadian regulators are probing a loan from Glencore to Gertler that enabled him to buy a mining asset in the DRC that he sold back to Glencore at a substantial profit.
As investigators plough through trails of trusts and shell companies registered in tax havens, the oligarchs and their strategists are struggling to cope with new demands for transparency.
Lev Leviev: Born in Uzbekistan in 1956, Leviev migrated to Israel in 1971 and made an estimated US$12b in Africa and countries of the former Soviet Union. But the value of his property investments in the West plummeted after 2008.
Beny Steinmetz: Inheriting the Steinmetz Diamond Group, Beny zig- zagged in search of mineral riches from South Africa to the DRC to Angola and now Guinea. His next target is the Nigerian power sector.
Dan Gertler: The 39-year-old king of the middlemen in the DRC, Gertler expanded operations from a near monopoly in diamond trading into joint ventures with world-class copper and cobalt conglomerates.
Arcadi Gaydamak: After emigrating to Israel from the Soviet Union in 1972, Gaydamak built a media and trading empire. At the centre of the Angolagate case, he devised an arms-for-diamonds deal linking Angola, France and Russia in the early 1990s. – The Africa Report