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Ehud Barak: Kibbutznik-turned-tycoon

Israeli Defense Minister and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak can now add another title to his resume: real estate mogul. On Sunday, it was reported that Barak had sold his notoriously luxurious Tel Aviv apartment in the Akirov Towers, a five-room compound on the 31st floor whose amenities include a gym, outdoor pool, spa, and breathtaking views, for $7 million. In 2003, he paid a mere $3.87 million for the 450-square-foot space.

Naturally, Barak took to Facebook to explain his decision:

"My wife Nili and I decided that the sale was inevitable faced with the recognition that this place of residence created a sense of alienation and detachment from vast sectors of the public."

In true Ehud Barak fashion, the apartment was sold to a foreign company. The veteran kibbutznik, who was raised in a 12-by-9 foot room with no running water or toilets and described his childhood as "happy" and "warm," entered the private sector after stepping down from a failed premiership in 2001. His business ventures included oil shale rock in Jordan, a stint as president of Satcom Systems, Ltd., a mobile communications company with ties to repressive African regimes, a post on the advisory board of venture capital firm Tamir Fishman & Co., and a network of parking lots in Istanbul (which failed). All of these expeditions, though, were peas and carrots compared to his passion for working with international hedge funds. According to son-in-law Zvi Lotenberg, "the bulk of Barak's activity takes place abroad, for a number of the world's largest hedge funds and investment firms, whose names he declined to reveal."

Barak may maintain that he has been transparent regarding his business transactions, and that he has paid his taxes, but in 2006 he put away some money in a favorite tax haven, using "an account of 38 million Japanese yen (the equivalent of $380,000) in the Cayman Islands branch of Mizrahi-Tefahot Bank as collateral to obtain a loan from the bank."

Compared with the corrupt financial escapades of Israeli leaders like former prime minister Ehud Olmert, this is pretty vanilla, but there are certainly more than enough former government officials with extensive tastes in the world. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former Saudi ambassador to the United States, built the 95-acre estate of Hala Ranch in 1991 just miles from Aspen, which was the "most expensive single-family residential property in the nation on the market" when it was listed for $135 million in 2007. Former British prime minister Tony Blair bought  a house in London's posh and swanky Connaught Square for 3.5 million pounds. When Jacques Chirac stepped down from the French presidency in May 2007, he rented an apartment overlooking the Seine on Paris' Quai Voltaire. What makes Barak notable is that he's still on the government payroll.

So where will Barak end up next? Perhaps the David Promenade? Or maybe he'll downsize to this four-bedroom stunner on Atzuk Beach? Wherever he ends up, the next home for this cigar-chomping pol promises to be far from the kibbutz.

Gellerj/Wikimedia Commons

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Clooney! Theater! Naked meltdowns! What were we talking about again?

Last Friday was an odd news day, particulaly in the world of white-dude-to-the-rescue humanitarian advocacy. It was a day that began with George Clooney's arrest outside the Sudanese embassy, continued with This American Life's retraction of Mike Daisey's much-acclaimed monologue about working conditions at the Foxconn factory in Shenzen, and ended with Invisible Children founder Jason Russell's naked spree through downtown San Diego. 

With the benefit of a couple of days' distance, what's striking is how removed these events seem from the actual issues under discussion. Whatever happened to these three American guys, it doesn't change the very real conditions on the ground in the Nuba mountains, the factory floors of China or Central Africa.

I know it's not quite fair to lump in Clooney here -- he intended to get arrested, after all -- but it's hard not too see a common dynamic at work here: A man taking on a worthy (albeit more complex than he presents it) cause, generating enormous publicity for his own efforts while denigrating the political and media establishment for never having noticed the problem before he came along. 

More public attention directed toward humanitarian issues is great. The problem is that when one of these saviors gets significant facts wrong or becomes mired in professional or personal scandal, it makes things harder for those who work on these issues full time. James Fallows has some thoughts along these lines in reference to the Daisey case:

When they get all huffy, Chinese nationalists love to present the Western press as being irremediably biased against Chinese achievements and ambitions, and willing to pass along the most outrageous slanders about China without checking them for accuracy or even plausibility. A site called Anti-CNN is a well-known outlet for such views. This is a constant nuisance when you try to write critical assessments. Worse, it gives ammo to those inside China who want to pooh-pooh complaints about safety, pollution, working conditions, and so on. Daisey is everything they warned against, come to life.

Similarly, Russell's meltdown is especially unfortunate since the uproar over the Kony 2012 campaign had finally seemed to be entering a more productive phase. Invisible Children was taking the responses of its critics seriously and as Chris Blattman noted, a rare and needed discussion of advocacy effectiveness -- typically confined to the development blogosphere -- was taking place in more mainstream outlets:

The big story has shifted from viral video to the oversimplification of complicated issues, the accuracy of advocacy, and the white savior complex in aid. Really. Newspapers are taking a nuanced view of aid and advocacy. This is big.

After Friday's antics, it's going to become quite a bit more difficult to have that conversation.

To second David Carr, the point isn't that journalism -- or advocacy -- should be left only to professionals. There's a place for celebrity advocates and nonprofessional storytellers. But the frequent problem here -- as with the often oversized attention given to the role of social networking technology during the Arab Spring -- is that when the story becomes about the international response, we often forget about the issue -- and the people -- we were talking about in the first place.