By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 31, 2009
TEL AVIV The office door has a steel vault veneer, and Shari Arison -- controlling stockholder in Israel's largest bank and its largest construction company, heiress to the Carnival Cruise Lines fortune and head of a long list of other undertakings -- has a lot to protect.
And as with any proper vault, this one is full of surprises.
Fairy figurines fill a knickknack shelf, and paintings of fairies hang from the soft-toned walls. Statues of dolphins leap from a cream-colored carpet, and goldfish gurgle in a tank just behind a chair. A yard-long see-through candleholder with a dozen flickering votives is angled across Arison's desk, looking like it connects to Kabbalah or the Upanishads or Area 51 or Something Larger Than Us, but which she says is there just because.
But the biggest jolt comes from the woman in the executive chair: Arison -- billionaire ($2.7 by Forbes's most recent estimate), perhaps the richest woman in the Middle East, a major force in Israeli philanthropy -- claims that she can see the future.
This is much bigger than a parlor trick. In her new book published this summer in Israel, the 51-year-old Miami native says she felt the Indonesian tsunami sweeping over the land two months before it happened and sensed Hurricane Katrina pummeling New Orleans. In an interview, Arison says she also "saw the writing on the wall" before the global economic crash. Reading about Arison's extrasensory perception makes you ache for a heads-up, maybe a blog entry or a tweet or a phone call to Brownie or Greenspan or somebody who might have helped.
Arison explains that she has finally dropped the fear that has held her back from doing more about what she has perceived. Armed with the insight gained through work with Florida-based psychiatrist Brian Weiss, a proponent of regression therapy and the exploration of (take your pick) deep memories or past lives, she says she is ready to go public with her visions and bring together her spiritual and business goals.
"Dr. Weiss told me during these meetings that one day I will have a significant role in world peace, but at that time I did not know what he was talking about and I could not cope with the idea," Arison writes in "Birth: When the Material and Spiritual Come Together," published in Hebrew as a hybrid memoir, corporate vision statement and collection of speeches. A possible English edition is in negotiation, according to an Arison representative.
"Over the years I suffered much from the visions, the feelings and these messages . . . I prayed they would go away. They brought much pain to my life. This was the preparation for the current phase, the phase in which I am ready to declare what I know with courage and without fear."
Arison says she plans to mobilize her wealth, her companies and, most important, the energy of her accumulated lives to save the human race. As a businesswoman, Arison has an environmental focus -- green building, renewable energy, water management. As a philanthropist and erstwhile spiritual role model, she had already been taking action -- like encouraging good works and promoting the kind of inner harmony she believes will do as much as summit meetings to keep people, and particularly Arabs and Jews, from hurting each other.
Arison and her family are well known in Israel. The name is stamped on public projects throughout the Tel Aviv area in particular, and the Arisons have been major figures in the country's philanthropic community ever since her father, Ted, built his opulent network of floating hotels decades ago. After his death in 1999, Shari Arison inherited his Israel investments, including a stake in the country's largest bank, Bank Hapoalim, and she began emerging in her own right as an Israeli businesswoman.
Her public image has always been built on duality, generating both talk-show gibes and praise for her charity work. There is the Shari Arison who was criticized as heartless in 2002 when the bank laid off 10 percent of its staff, and the Shari Arison who launched the nonprofit Essence of Life in 2001 to help people find their personal peace; the Shari Arison with the house-size yacht and the three divorces -- the latest after her husband was convicted of smooching the domestic help -- and the Shari Arison who mobilizes Israel on Good Deeds Day, on which everyone is encouraged to do at least one nice thing.
Israel, by now, is used to the extremes. The book made a splash with its startling claims about her visions, and has been on the summer's bestseller lists for lifestyle and self-help books.
Arison says she was not surprised by the sort of "there she goes again" reception by local media. She's sensitive to the fact that some people perceive her spiritual claims and her identity as a businesswoman as eye-rollingly opposite. But she counters that it doesn't take a rabbi to talk about spiritual matters. And anyone who, after the last couple of years, wants to leave the economy to economists and traditional bankers should think twice, she says.
"Here I am -- a woman, a businesswoman -- coming out with ideas that it is okay for a rabbi to have, or it is okay for a spiritual leader to have or an astrologist to have or whoever," Arison says, acknowledging that, for many people, the idea of a banker with a spiritual gift "is scary."
"And it is a shame because it should be quite the opposite. They were not scared with all the mortgage investments . . . and those were very rational business people, who all they cared about was profit, and look what happened. And here comes someone who says they want things to be vision-based, with values, with caring, with a sense of humanity, and people are scared. Okay."
The philanthropies Arison has launched over the past several years get downright tantric -- all tiny ripples she hopes will build into a planet-changing wave.
Here is how the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, a 15-year-old undergraduate and research university, describes the Shari Arison Awareness Communication Center, which she endowed in 2006: "The center will focus on research on the importance of the individual's inner balance as an engine for self-development and self-achievement. It shall also research how humanity can function in an increasingly technological world in the future."
For "true world peace, among all people, each one of us has to reach their own individual peace," Arison says in a video introduction to Essence of Life, which sponsors workshops and a Web site aimed at "bringing about a major shift in collective consciousness." She hopes that her Good Deeds Day initiative, which is up to 20,000 participants after its first few years, can go global with its message of setting aside one day a year to volunteer at a charity, paint a school or even just carry the groceries for a neighbor.
At the same time, it's not clear that her visions and her call for values-based capitalism have had much influence at Bank Hapoalim. Its recent performance has looked like that of many other financial institutions: losses on mortgage-backed securities, allegations of insider trading in a subsidiary, controversy over bonuses and, in the end, intervention by regulators.
When the Bank of Israel pushed for the ouster of Hapoalim Chairman Dan Danker, Arison resisted (unsuccessfully). As she told the newspaper Haaretz, the problems were caused by "a collapse in values" around the world, and that it was "unfair to hang only Danny."
Likewise, it's not clear how her professed values have influenced her construction company, Shikun & Binui. It's true that the company is planning a move to fully sustainable building practices, using supplies that are produced in more environmentally friendly ways and making sure that its scraps and waste are recycled -- a policy Arison says will ultimately be more profitable and consistent with how she wants her companies run. But it's an open question whether her decision to keep the firm, as it went from losses to renewed profits several years ago, was prompted by a "message from above" -- as she has told the media -- or a message from then-chief executive Uri Shani, as explained in local financial reports at the time.
Arison recently invested $100 million to set up a water company, Miya, whose name is from a Hebrew word for God and whose mission goes to one of Arison's chief worries, that water and other resource shortages will increase conflict around the world. It's a high aim, but the business is strictly for-profit, and the function pretty basic -- fixing leaky pipes and installing pressure gauges and other monitors so that big water systems in aging cities don't spill half their product.
Plumbers have a place in heaven, too.
And she has not run willy-nilly into what would seem like a peacemaking Israeli capitalist's sweet spot -- investments in the Palestinian territories or joint ventures with Israeli Arabs.
She said she was pitched on the idea by former British prime minister Tony Blair, who serves as a special regional envoy with an emphasis on improving the Palestinian economy.
Her response: Bring me a deal that makes sense.
"I told him I'd be very happy to invest, but I want to have assurances," she says. "People look at me as spiritual . . . but I am also very logical, very business-minded. The two come together. It has to be in a way that is going to be sensible. I am not going to lose what I have over doing that."
Even so, her peacemaking intentions might be working some magic already.
After all, President Obama has peace envoys back in the region. There has not been a suicide bombing in a year and a half. Bank Hapoalim turned a first-quarter profit.
And according to her book, the visions are getting nicer.
"There is still difficulty and pain in them, but they are going and fading away," Arison writes. "If in the past, the visions were always harsh, catastrophic, violent -- recently I can see the new world. The quiet, the calm and the freedom it will have. This is a very comforting knowledge for me because I already know that what I envision materializes."