Netanyahu and The Uber Files: A Meeting in Davos, a Clash With Katz and Help From the PMO

A massive leak of documents has revealed the extent to which Uber used connections, pressure, and lobbyists as part of its efforts to penetrate the Israeli market. A Shomrim investigation shows how the company managed to get as far up as then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who, according to the leaks, promised to “break the resistance” of the transportation minister. According to the documents, Eli Groner, the director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office, told the company what messages would win over the Israeli public, when to go to the media and repeatedly reminded Uber that “it’s important that the prime minister looks good.” On a separate occasion, he asked that any future communication be sent to his private email address, not his government one. Netanyahu, Groner and Katz did not respond

A massive leak of documents has revealed the extent to which Uber used connections, pressure, and lobbyists as part of its efforts to penetrate the Israeli market. A Shomrim investigation shows how the company managed to get as far up as then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who, according to the leaks, promised to “break the resistance” of the transportation minister. According to the documents, Eli Groner, the director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office, told the company what messages would win over the Israeli public, when to go to the media and repeatedly reminded Uber that “it’s important that the prime minister looks good.” On a separate occasion, he asked that any future communication be sent to his private email address, not his government one. Netanyahu, Groner and Katz did not respond

A massive leak of documents has revealed the extent to which Uber used connections, pressure, and lobbyists as part of its efforts to penetrate the Israeli market. A Shomrim investigation shows how the company managed to get as far up as then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who, according to the leaks, promised to “break the resistance” of the transportation minister. According to the documents, Eli Groner, the director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office, told the company what messages would win over the Israeli public, when to go to the media and repeatedly reminded Uber that “it’s important that the prime minister looks good.” On a separate occasion, he asked that any future communication be sent to his private email address, not his government one. Netanyahu, Groner and Katz did not respond

Uri Blau

Katz and Netanyahu. Photo: Reuters

July 10, 2022

Summary

I

nternal email correspondence between Uber officials exposes the extent of connections that the company forged with then Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office during the same years it was trying to enter the Israeli transportation market. Netanyahu met with Uber officials, expressed his support for the company being allowed to operate in Israel and clashed with his transportation minister, Yisrael Katz, over the issue. The director-general of the PMO under Netanyahu, Eli Groner, gave the company recommendations as to which messages would resonate best with the Israeli public and how to handle the Israeli media. For reasons best known to him, Groner also asked Uber officials to ensure that future communications were sent to his private email address, rather than his government email. Netanyahu, Groner and Katz all declined to respond to this article.

This insight into the company’s global business practices is based on a massive leak of the company’s documents – 124,000 in total – obtained by British newspaper The Guardian and referred to as The Uber Files. The Guardian shared this leak, covering a period from 2014 to 2107, with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and, through that organization, 180 journalists from 44 media outlets worldwide, including the Washington Post, Paris-based La Monde, and the BBC. Shomrim, through journalist Uri Blau, is the Israeli representative on the project.

Among the revelations contained in the leak is that, in various countries, including France, the Netherlands, Belgium, India, Romania and Hungary, Uber operated a mechanism known as the “kill switch,” which allowed it immediately to delete any information that could be of interest to local authorities and regulators. As part of its efforts to get a foothold in Russia, the company made deals with oligarchs closely associated with Russian President Vladimir Putin, despite warnings from within the company. In France, the leak exposes the close relations and tight coordination with then-Minister of Economy, Industry and Digital Affairs Emmanuel Macron in their joint struggle against local taxi drivers. On the Israeli front, the leak reveals Uber’s efforts to penetrate the local market and the expansive network of connections, pressure and lobbying in which it engaged.

Uber currently operates in over 20,000 cities in 72 countries and some 120 million people use its services. In a considerable number of locations where it operates, Uber, by employing aggressive business practices, brought about a decline in the use of traditional taxi services and, in some cases, their disappearance entirely. Last week, it was reported in financial newspapers that Uber is trying once again to enter the Israeli market following failed attempts in the past – attempts that are detailed in this leak.

The Uber Files. Illustration: Rocco Fazzari-ICIJ

Meeting Netanyahu in Davos

Uber launched its efforts to enter the Israeli market in mid-2014 and almost immediately ran into vehement opposition from then-transportation minister Yisrael Katz. According to Uber officials, Katz’s opposition stemmed from his close ties with taxi drivers, who are considered influential members of the powerful Likud Central Committee. The solution, according to Uber, was to go through the prime minister’s bureau. By mid-2015, according to the leak, one senior Uber official had met with someone at the prime minister’s office – but the records do not make it clear who the meeting was with.

To secure a meeting with Netanyahu, Uber officials used all of their connections in Israel. Once a date was set for the meeting, which was to be held at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January 2016, the company began meticulous preparations. In an email to colleagues, the CEO of Israel at the time, Yoni Greifman, wrote that he was preparing for a meeting the next day with a senior in  PMO. He described him as a friend and promised that he would ask him how to influence the prime minister.

Another internal Uber email came with an attachment that included a survey of the company's obstacles in Israel and the goals of its meeting with Netanyahu. The survey said that Israeli civil servants were in favor of a dialog over regulating ridesharing services and that the company had good relations with professionals from the Transportation Ministry. It went on to describe Katz as the main obstacle since he was not even willing to meet with Uber and had taken a very strident position against the company. The document added that his opposition was almost certainly inspired by the powerful taxi lobby and his own personal connections.

The goals of the meeting with the Israeli prime were made quite clear: building a relationship of mutual trust; securing his support in terms of exerting political pressure on the transportation minister; and stressing that Uber would reconsider any future investment in Israel in light of the negative atmosphere it was encountering.

The meeting between then-CEO Travis Kalanick and Netanyahu was seen as a success within the company. One of the leaked emails had an attachment showing the handwritten notes taken by one of the people present at the meeting, which included quotes allegedly from Netanyahu. The prime minister expressed an interest in autonomous vehicles that Uber was involved in developing and the possibility that the company might open development centers in Israel. According to the notes, he also told the Uber CEO that his transportation minister was acting out of foreign interests because of his ties with taxi drivers. Netanyahu was quoted as saying “ we will break the resistance” and urging Uber to work in tandem with him.

On January 24, 2016, just a few days after returning to Israel, Netanyahu raised the issue of Uber at the weekly cabinet meeting, openly clashing with Katz. “Yisrael,” he said, according to media reports at the time, “you have to ensure that there’s competition.” He added that he had met with Uber’s CEO in Davos.

According to the reports, Katz did not hold back in his response. “You’re telling me about competition? I was the person who opened up the skies to competition. And the ports and the railways. I don’t have a problem with Uber – as long as they operate legally.” Katz did not stop there and teased Netanyahu over reports about his relations with his cousin and former attorney, David Shimron. “I am happy to hand the matter over to you, unless there’s some conflict of interest preventing you from dealing with transportation.”

Netanyahu responded that there was no conflict of interest and that he would look kindly on the matter. Katz continued: “My job is not to look out for foreign tycoons, but for Israelis. Competition needs to be fair and effective. I advanced reforms for the good of the Israeli people.

Netanyahu, according to reports, retorted angrily that reforms must be carried out irrespective of political pressure, thereby alluding to the alleged pressure on Katz from taxi drivers. According to the reports, there was silence in the room until Netanyahu added that he did not know the Uber CEO apart from the meeting in Davos.

According to the leaked emails, Uber officials were delighted by the spat between Netanyahu and his transportation minister. Mark McGann, Uber's head of public policy for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, noted with satisfaction in a mail to colleagues that Netanyahu doesn’t waste any time.

Eli Groner, former director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office. Photo: Reuters
In one of the exchanges between McGann and Groner, which took place on LinkedIn and not via the government email address that had been used for most of the correspondence up to that point, Groner added his personal email address and asked for the conversation to move to there. McGann agreed and the two men continued to correspond.

Groner’s message service

The angry exchanges between Netanyahu and Katz quickly became a long email chain within Uber, with the subject line “BB vs. Katz at the Government Meeting Today.” That exchange brings to light differences of opinion within Uber as to the correct strategy for best leveraging the situation to the company’s advantage and the direct line that Uber had established with the most powerful person in Israel.

While McGann and others were keen to ensure that they would not lose momentum – especially in the media – they wanted to proceed slowly and, most importantly, in coordination with the prime minister’s bureau. That line was led by McGann, who wrote at length in one email about his contacts in Israel and urged his successor in the position to maintain them. He boasted that he had developed extensive and strong relations with the PMO, adding that the person replacing him at Uber could count on him to give his advice or to relay a message to the prime minister’s bureau.

According to the leaked emails, the opposing view was held by Uber Israel’s CEO, Yoni Greifman, who believed that the media storm over the cabinet spat between Netanyahu and Katz could be the turning point for Uber in Israel. He wrote to colleagues that he had been approached by several media outlets and was planning on talking to them all to maximize the impact.

But McGann stopped him from doing so. He reminded his Israeli colleague that they had agreed to work in tandem and that while PMO was promoting the requisite regulatory reforms, Uber would send people to Israel to look into a possible research center. But he insisted that the company should not be handing out gifts before it sees any results from the Israeli side and that it should not place itself at the epicenter of the clash between Netanyahu and Katz. He added that this does not mean there should be no media presence, but it should be carefully managed. He added that he would contact Netanyahu’s bureau chief and ask what he believed would be the most effective path forward.

In another mail, sent to fewer people, McGann is a lot less diplomatic and said that trying to restrain Greifman was exhausting. He also warned that if the company were to be dragged into the dirty political infighting within the Likud, both sides – Netanyahu and Katz – would use the company to their own ends.

While the argument was still raging, Greifman informed colleagues that Groner’s assistant had contacted him. According to Greifman, he told him that the prime minister’s bureau was keen for Uber to be prominent in the media and even suggested which messages to push: ridesharing is a proven model for reducing the cost of living, and it works just fine on a global level; that it is the perfect model for Israel and will lower transportation costs; that Uber believes that the regulator must decide which model is best suited to Israel.

McGann asked Greifman to wait a little longer but, the next day had changed his tune. He updated colleagues that he had spoken to Groner and that now was the right time for Greifman to talk on the record, but cautiously, to the media. McGann added that Gruner had told him that the Israeli side needed it to be done now, so in his opinion, that is what Uber should do. He also said that he had consulted with Groner about a certain journalist that Uber was considering talking to off the record, assuming that he would write favorably about the company. According to McGann, Gruner opined that the journalist in question was fair until it came to the prime minister when his hatred became pathological.

Incidentally, Gruner reminded McGann in one of his emails that it was important that Netanyahu emerge well from the whole thing – rounding it off with a smiley face emoji. A day later, McGann updated Groner regarding recent publications in which Uber was mentioned in connection with the clash between Netanyahu and Katz.

Travis Kalanick, former Uber CEO. Photo: Reuters
The meeting between then-CEO Travis Kalanick and Netanyahu was seen as a success within the company. One of the leaked emails had an attachment showing the handwritten notes taken by one of the people present at the meeting, which included quotes allegedly from Netanyahu

Private mail only, please

In one of the exchanges between McGann and Groner, which took place on LinkedIn and not via the government email address that had been used for most of the correspondence up to that point, Groner added his personal email address and asked for the conversation to move to there. McGann agreed and the two men continued to correspond.

The transfer to a private mail account is highly significant since communication conducted via private mail servers – even when it is between two public officials and dealing with matters of public interest – is not covered by freedom of information legislation. A legal opinion issued in 2018 by Eyal Zandberg, head of Public Law in the Consulting and Legislation Department at the Justice Ministry, stated that “it is safe to assume that a great deal of information is held in the private email accounts of civil servants and elected officials and that is in fact, information that should be documented in publicly accessible databases (…) Public interest justifies documenting all of the information generated or received by officials within the framework of the public activity. There are many reasons for this and the principle of transparency and freedom of information are just two of them. It is also worth mentioning the existence of correct management and organized decision-making. There is also the issue of supervision and oversight of the government. There is justified concern that the use of private databases will become, even if not out of any malicious intent, a safe haven that exists separately from the normal internal organization databases and far from the eyes of the public and oversight.”

The use of private email has, of course, been controversial in many countries. For example, emails sent by Hilary Clinton from her private account became a key issue in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Katz and Netanyahu. Photo: Reuters
Netanyahu, according to reports, retorted angrily that reforms must be carried out irrespective of political pressure, thereby alluding to the alleged pressure on Katz from taxi drivers. According to the reports, there was silence in the room until Netanyahu added that he did not know the Uber CEO apart from the meeting in Davos.

Netanyahu, Groner and Katz all declined to respond to this article.

Greifman told Shomrim, "I have no idea where you’re getting this information. I have no idea what you are talking about in most of these cases.”

Uber’s Israeli representatives were asked a series of detailed questions, but the company opted to respond with a general statement that is designed to be published by all the media outlets involved in the Uber Files project. Jill Hazelbaker, a spokeswoman for Uber, acknowledged “mistakes” and “missteps” that culminated five years ago in “one of the most infamous reckonings in the history of corporate America.”

She said Uber completely changed how it operates in 2017 after facing high-profile lawsuits and government investigations that led to the ouster of Kalanick and other senior executives. “When we say Uber is a different company today, we mean it literally: 90 percent of current Uber employees joined after Dara [Khosrowshahi] became CEO” in 2017, Hazelbaker said in a written statement. “We have not and will not make excuses for past behavior that is clearly not in line with our present values.”

She said that Uber has not used a kill switch to thwart regulatory actions since 2017 and that “no one at Uber has ever been happy about violence against a driver."  The company dismissed any suggestion that it received special treatment from Macron or his cabinet and emphasized that no one who works at Uber today was involved in building relationships with Russian oligarchs.

This is a summary of shomrim's story published in Hebrew.
To read the full story click here.