American banker thrives at center of Israeli politics
“Should I change money here or in the hotel?” the traveler asks.
It is more than just an amusing exchange. It is a sign of deference to Mr. Fischer, who left a high-profile career on Wall Street, emigrated to Israel and entered the cutthroat world of Israeli politics two years ago.
Mr. Fischer was a vice chairman at Citigroup Inc. at the time. Before that, he held senior positions at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and headed the prestigious economics department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where a young economist named Ben S. Bernanke was his student long before he became chairman of the Federal Reserve.
However, critics attacked Mr. Netanyahu for not picking an Israeli economist. They targeted Mr. Fischer’s limited command of Hebrew, noted he wasn’t even an Israeli citizen and questioned his commitment to the job. In a notoriously informal country, Mr. Fischer remains an anomaly. The wiry, bespectacled banker favors tailored suits in a world of open collars. His soft-spoken demeanor stands out in the high-decibel Israeli society, and his English-accented Hebrew is a constant reminder of his outsider status.
But since accepting Israeli citizenship and joining the bank, he not only has won the respect of the political establishment. He also has become an unlikely celebrity, thanks to a booming economy and a widespread perception that he didn’t take the job for personal gain.
“People … know who I am when I walk around. Israel being Israel, they come up and talk to me,” Mr. Fischer says. “It took a while for people to get used to this unusual phenomenon. I started as an outsider, and (I’m) probably still viewed somewhat as an outsider, but I think there’s a growing acceptance.”
Mr. Fischer may be a newcomer, but his connection to Israel is old. Mr. Fischer, 63, who was born in the British colony of Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, was active in a Jewish youth group during his childhood in Africa. As an economist, he spent sabbaticals in Israel and helped craft a 1985 U.S.-sponsored “stabilization” plan to halt runaway inflation.
“I wasn’t totally a foreigner here,” he says. “Here was an opportunity to do something for Israel instead of talking about it. I knew this was the only opportunity I’d get, so I took it.”
Even so, Israeli officials said at the time that they considered Mr. Fischer a long shot, and were pleasantly surprised when he agreed to accept the job.
The position of Israeli central bank chief is a world away from Wall Street.
During Mr. Fischer’s tenure, the country has gone to war in Lebanon, battled militants in the Gaza Strip, seen a prime minister incapacitated by a stroke and watched a string of leaders, including the finance minister and prime minister, become embroiled in financial scandals.
“This is a tough country,” he acknowledges.
Mr. Fischer’s biggest challenge has been at the bank itself. He inherited a host of problems, including a bloated bureaucracy and employee salaries that the Finance Ministry says are far too high for the Israeli market. The ministry has even tried to force some bank employees to return parts of their salaries.