"The Arab sector in Israel has been suffering from stigmas for years now and regarded by the banking system as a financial risk. If I am elected [to the office of Director], I'll have ample opportunity to influence the banks' strategy and promote a change of attitude to the benefit of the Arab sector, the shareholders of Bank Leumi and the Israeli economy," announced Certified Public Accountant Ziyad Abou Habla, the newly nominated nominee to the Bank Leumi Le-Israel's Board of Directors in a June 25 interview to the financial supplement of the Israeli daily Maariv. If indeed appointed to office, Abou Habla will be the first Arab director in Bank Leumi Le-Israel, among whose holdings is the Arab Israel Bank, the dominant bank in the Arab sector.
Abou Habla (38) is a resident of the Triangle area (a concentration of Israeli Arab towns and villages adjacent to the Green Line) and the owner of a certified public accountanting firm that serves the Arab sector in Israel. He has a rich track record in a number of leading accounting firms, including Ernst & Young Israel, and special expertise in the economy of local municipal authorities, in general, and Arab municipal authorities, in particular.
"I am the right person for the job on my own merit," Abou Habla says, noting, "I don't need any favors. I am not interested in being elected as an Arab; I would rather be chosen thanks to my skills and experience."
Abou Habla notes that the "[Israeli] banking system rejects requests for credit by businesses in the Arab sector due to the very same erroneous views that [prevailed in the past but] are no longer relevant today." Referring to research findings that he has recently published, he adds, "According to my research, in the past few years, the black-market economy in the Arab sector has accounted for 21% of the total Arab sector economy — the same rate of black-market economy found in the Jewish sector. It is up to the banks to encourage this positive trend."
On the whole, the Arab sector accounts for 20% of the population in Israel; however, its share in the gross national product (GNP) is a mere 8%. Abou Habla says that, if elected, he will act to increase the share of the Arab sector in the national economy.
In addition, Abou Habla intends to bring about a change in the relations between the banking sector and the local municipal authorities. "The banks don't seem to understand the needs of the local municipal authorities. Even a relatively small local municipal authority with a population of 30 thousand has a budget of close to $40 million, and the banks are losing this business segment." At present, the dominant bank in this niche of local municipal authorities is Dexia Israel Bank, which used to be under control of the Union of Local Authorities in Israel (ULAI).
"The niche of local municipal authorities is completely neglected, and this is all the more true with respect to the local municipal authorities in the Arab sector. The banks should understand that even a conglomerate like Teva carries more risk than any local municipal authority, since there is more certainty about the future revenues of the local municipal authorities and they face no real threat to their sustainability," Abou Habla says, noting that a change of attitude on part of the banks would significantly leverage the banks' revenues.