Idan Ofer: the genial billionaire fleeing populist wrath

Shipping magnate Idan Ofer has fled accusation and scandal in his native Israel for the peace and quiet of London.

So Israel's richest man is moving to London. "Bye, bye Idan No loss to us," said a headline in the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper. "Your move won't impact the economy, but it does send a clear message to taxpayers: the rich are out to dodge what they can."

That's just a sample of the kind of criticism meted out to Idan Ofer and his family for years, investment analyst Gilad Alper told Bloomberg. They employ over 10,000 people in Israel and have made a massive contribution to the national economy and yet "they have been portrayed as villains".

"Second-generation billionaires rarely inspire much sympathy," says the FT. But Ofer co-heir with his brother, Eyal, to a shipping fortune, and majority owner of Tel Aviv's largest listed company, Israel Corp "has had a poor week". As well as enduring trial by media over his mooted move, he could well forfeit what was to have been Israel's "biggest ever business deal".

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Last November, Ofer struck an agreement with the Canadian fertiliser giant PotashCorp to sell a controlling stake in the Dead Sea potash-producer Israel Chemicals (ICL) for $13.5bn. Yet Israel's populist new finance minister, Yair Lapid, has vowed to "vigorously oppose" the sale on grounds that Israeli natural resources are "a public asset". Since the government has a golden share in ICL, he may well succeed in scuppering it.

The controversy highlights a growing fissure in Israeli society about wealth and personal success (see below). But the personal attacks have distressed the 57-year-old billionaire who, in rare interviews, "cuts a genial, unassuming figure".

Like many rich men (he is worth $6.5bn), Ofer has been "lulled into a sense of security that everyone likes him", says one acquaintance. And, like many sons of self-made tycoons, he still struggles to escape the shadow of his father.

The Ofer family fortune was built by Romanian-born Sammy Ofer, who arrived in what was then British Palestine in the 1920s to serve in the Royal Navy. In 1950 he bought a freight ship, eventually turning that investment into "a fleet of hundreds", says Bloomberg. By the 1970s, he was Israel's richest man, though he spent most of his time managing his business from Monaco.

He believed in making his sons "prove themselves". Idan was sent to Hong Kong to expand the oil-tanker business. That Asian connection stood him in good stead. One of Israel Corp's best long-term investments has been a partnership, dating back to 2007, with Chinese carmaker, Chery.

Doubtless Idan Ofer will feel at home in London, says The Independent. His late father, an ardent anglophile, received an honorary KBE for his contributions to British maritime heritage; and his mother still lives here. But as he joins the ranks of Russians and other foreign billionaires "in search of an easier life", says the FT, they might well remind him: "you can never really leave home behind".

Israel's rising red tide

When Sammy Ofer died aged 89 in 2011, Israel's great and good turned out to mourn him, says Ben Hartman in the Jerusalem Post. The funeral tributes were heartfelt (Idan Ofer broke down in tears when describing Shabbat afternoons spent with his father in the office), but there was no mistaking the "defensive tone" of some of the eulogies.

Sammy Ofer's final days had been marred by the media circus ignited by "Ofergate" the accusation, strongly denied, that his company had broken international sanctions by secretly selling an $8.65m oil tanker to Iran.

That's just one of many charges that activists have levelled at the family, says Bloomberg: others include grabbing state assets at knockdown prices, wreaking environmental damage on the Dead Sea, and tax avoidance. In 2009, the Ofers sued an investigative journalist, Miki Rosenthal, for libel after he reported details of their dealings with the government in a documentary titled The Shakshuka System (an out-of-court settlement was later reached).

Shakshuka is "a hearty regional breakfast favourite made of eggs and tomatoes", says Ruth Schuster in Haaretz. It's also a euphemism "for foul, unkosher deals cooked up in smoky backroom dealing".

Israel has become an uncomfortable place in which to be rich, says Alistair Dawber in The Independent. Having sailed through the credit crunch, the economy has since stalled, and protests about the gap between rich and poor (often targeting the Ofers) have become increasingly common.

At a recent demonstration in Tel Aviv, a man set himself alight. During last January's election campaign, Idan Ofer was "singled out for... criticism" by the Labour opposition leader Shelly Yachimovich, who subsequently won an election on a tide of discontent.

Israel is both the self-styled "start-up nation" of capitalists, and a country "founded by kibbutzniks and socialists", says John Reed in the FT. There's no doubt currently which group is in the ascendancy.