Israeli billionaire's got the vision thing, unfortunately

Shari Arison is Israel's richest woman, presiding over a financial empire that includes the country's second-biggest bank. She also claims in a memoir to see visions of the future. But one thing she apparently didn't envision is the puzzlement, laughter and even nervousness that have greeted her book.

Arison, 51, is up against an Israeli public that is notoriously cynical about power elites in general and banks in particular.

"Everyone has the right to hear voices," quipped Motti Kirshenbaum, a popular TV commentator.

"The problem is, I don't want someone that hears voices to be owner of the bank where my money is."

Arison doesn't actually claim to hear voices, and much of what she writes in "Birth: When the Spiritual and Material Come Together" wouldn't seem unusual to anyone who believes in intuition and New Age ideas.

Nor is she closely involved in the day-to-day workings of Bank Hapoalim, the banking powerhouse she controls. But her claim of visions -- the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, for instance, or the Iraqi missiles that hit Israel in 1991 -- have made at least a few customers nervous, according to an opinion poll.

"I saw things before they happened, and that scared me very much," she writes. "The premonitions would always be accompanied by harsh and painful physical sensations. During the Gulf War, when missiles were fired on Tel Aviv, and today, when missiles are fired on Sderot, I sense this on my own flesh. I feel that I am ablaze, mourning losses that are not my own and haven't happened yet."

She said in her book that the tsunami premonition came to her as she sat with her then-husband and friends on her yacht on the Turkish coast.

"I knew more or less where, what area, not exactly, but I knew it was the Far East and I knew it was a big wave. I knew thousands of people would die," she elaborated in an interview.

She also said she received warnings of the global financial crisis, though too late to save her bank from losing hundreds of millions of dollars and its longtime No. 1 ranking here.

"It's not my place or my position to make those steps at the bank," she explained.

Arison is Bank Hapoalim's majority shareholder, but says she stays out of its day-to-day affairs. She also has large holdings in cruise operator Carnival Corp. and Israel's largest construction company.

Arison's talk of visions led the Haaretz daily to publish a cartoon showing her holding a board meeting attended by extraterrestrials in neckties.

Aaron Katsman, 38, who runs a financial services firm and banks at a Bank Hapoalim branch in Jerusalem, called Arison "a little nutty," but said he wasn't worried about the bank's future.

"She's sitting around with billions of dollars, so when she makes comments like that, people listen," he said.

"People are afraid of new things," Arison retorts. "But if it creates any kind of change, it will all be worth it."

Analysts say strict banking regulations make it nearly impossible for Arison's ideas to affect anything more than the bank's image. Over Arison's uncharacteristically public objections, central bank chief Stanley Fischer recently forced out Hapoalim's chairman, apparently concerned by his choice of a new CEO.

Such safeguards haven't reassured everyone. A poll in Haaretz had 19% saying Arison's claims meant they wouldn't bank with Hapoalim. The survey by MarketWatch questioned 500 people and had a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.

Though often labeled an irresponsible heiress, Arison has striven to be taken seriously in the male-dominated Israeli business world, expanding and diversifying her holdings. Forbes magazine estimates her personal fortune at $2.7 billion, ranking her 234th on its list of the world's wealthiest people.

Born in New York, she inherited most of her fortune from her father, Ted Arison, who founded Carnival Cruise Lines and the Miami Heat basketball team. Shari Arison split the inheritance with her brother, Micky, who is chairman and chief executive of Carnival.

Commentator Kirshenbaum said that while Israelis are amused by Arison's foibles, they still admire her charity work and her independence.

"I don't really think she's a cartoon," he said.

"She's a very strong young woman."


Marks writes for the Associated Press.

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