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Ehud Barack And Israel's Ivory Coast Connection

Barak when he was still in government
Barak when he was still in government
Shay Aspril

TEL AVIV — When Stanley Fischer left his senior post at the International Monetary Fund in 2001, he made sure to mention of one of his closest IMF friends and colleagues during his farewell speech.

That friend is Alassane Ouattara, who served as Ivory Coast’s prime minister in the early 1990s before moving on to the IMF.

Fischer, who went on to become governor of the Bank of Israel, used that speech in 2001 to praise his friend’s personality and professionalism. He also indirectly rebuked the Ivorian government at the time for passing a law that effectively thwarted Ouattara’s bid to run for the presidency by requiring candidates’ parents be native Ivorians. Ouattara, the president of the Muslim opposition party RDR, was disqualified because his father was born in Burkina Faso, and according to some claims Ouattara himself was also born there.

This disqualification was one of the factors that triggered the country’s 2002 riots between the Muslim north, represented by RDR, and the regime representing the rich Christian south.

A decade later, in May 2011, Fischer was invited to Ouattara’s swearing-in ceremony as Ivorian president. He was supposed to arrive with his wife Rhoda, who is a close friend of Ouattara’s wife, Dominique, a French Jewish-born businesswoman, but he eventually stayed in Israel for security reasons.

Ouattara’s candidacy had been approved in 2010, and he was elected the same year, but his entering office was delayed. Ousted President Laurent Gbago refused to give up his position and only surrendered after an intervention from French forces. In April 2011, he was arrested and is now awaiting trial at the International Criminal Court on war crimes charges.

Yet, even when Ouattara stepped into the presidential palace, he felt unsafe. He believed supporters of the previous regime were already conspiring against him and training militias in neighboring Ghana, Burkina Faso and Liberia.

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In June 2012, Ouattara attended the Israeli Presidential Conference. A month later, a delegation of Israeli businessman from the water and infrastructure sectors, along with foreign ministry officials, arrived in the Ivory Coast to discuss business cooperation with the West African country.

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Ouattara in 2011 — Photo: Hugo Passarella Luna

Heading the delegation was Fischer, unusual for the central bank governor. Meetings with the Israeli businessman were kept secret from the media. Sources familiar with the meetings told Calcalist that Ouattara frequently questioned his guests about Israel’s strategic capabilities. He wanted to know how he could establish a defense apparatus for the regime, and whether it would be possible to connect him with someone in Israel who could draw up plans to overhaul the presidential army.

Back in Israel, four months after the meetings, Ehud Barak announced he was leaving politics after his latest five-year stint as defense minister. Of course, the former prime minister was quite well-known internationally.

Previously, he had taken a seven-year hiatus from political life, between 2001 and 2007, building a bustling business that included lectures, corporate board memberships, as well as what has been termed “consultancy and door-opening” — connecting large companies with even larger clients, at times as large as countries.

The firm he established, Ehud Barak Ltd., registered revenue estimated by some reports at 30 million shekels (6.3 million euros).

In 2007, on the eve of returning to politics, Barak transferred control of Ehud Barak Ltd. to his daughters. But he always maintains his main asset — his defense expertise, contacts and reputation — whether in the public or private sectors.

According to information obtained by Calcalist, one of his first moves after returning to the business world in March 2013 was reviewing the prospects of mobilizing his strategic know-how for the service of the Ivory Coast president.

In spring 2013, Ouattara received Barak with royal honor and briefed him about the strategic challenges he faced as the new president.

Shortly afterward, following his return to Israel, Barak submitted an offer for building a new intelligence apparatus for the Ivory Coast, including border security, army training and strategic military consulting.

According to sources close to the negotiations, Barak’s proposal was valued at $150 million, with a substantial share of it going to an Israeli firm active in western Africa to develop the apparatus, while Barak himself would oversee the process.

Sources said Ouattara was impressed with Barak, the details of the proposal, and the defense apparatus he offered to build for the African republic. But it was eventually rejected because of its high price.

New frontiers

“Barak intended to develop an operation of the highest imaginable level, but the price was far from what Ouattara wished to pay,” a person familiar with the correspondence between Barak and the Ivorian leader told Calcalist.

Why Barak? “If you're Israeli, you consider Ehud Barak in the political and personal context,” a source in the international security sector tells Calcalist. “But if you’re American, Singaporean or anyone else who understands the military sector, you know this is one of the best connected and knowledgeable people in the field.”

Barak continues his globe-spanning business vigorously. Last March he established a new firm called Hyperion EB (Ehud Barak), through which he provides private consultancy services to a host of international bodies, including Swiss bank Julius Baer and strategic consultancy Ergo.

In addition, people who know Barak from his time as defense minister send him offers to participate in various ventures. One such venture is an investment project in Kazakhstan, involving former Israeli minister Shalom Simhon and his partner Sharon Kedmi, until recently executive director of Israel’s Industry, Trade and Labor ministry. The two now head Demeter AWE, a holding company investing in agricultural bodies.

In a conversation with Calcalist, Barak denies he made an offer to the Ivory Coast to build an intelligence apparatus or security consulting. “I visited the Ivory Coast and met with the president about nine months ago,” he said. “Fischer did not introduce me to the president. I have met him in the past on several occasions. The claims about establishing an intelligence apparatus and price offers are incorrect. These are private conversations, and the public has no interest in them."

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