Transportation minister goes to war with Netanyahu over Uber

Yisrael Katz warns lawmakers that approving private taxis will entail billions in compensation to licensed cab drivers

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits next to Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz at the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, January 24, 2016 (Ohad Zwigenberg/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits next to Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz at the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, January 24, 2016 (Ohad Zwigenberg/POOL)

Transport Minister Yisrael Katz on Monday insisted he was acting in the interest of the country in seeking to prevent the entry of the international transportation network Uber into the Israeli market, doubling down on his position a day after a spat with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the matter.

“Anyone who wants to introduce Uber should prepare NIS 8-9 billion ($2-2.25 billion) to compensate the taxi drivers,” Katz told the Knesset Finance Committee. “If that’s what the Israeli cabinet and the Knesset want, they should prepare the compensation.”

The committee had gathered to review reforms in vehicle legislation, giving him an opportunity to bring up the question of Uber, which he insisted should also be debated, Channel 2 reported.

Katz defended himself against remarks made by Netanyahu, who insinuated during Sunday’s cabinet meeting that the transportation minister’s reluctance to see Uber used in Israel stemmed from pressure from taxi drivers, who stand to lose a lot of business.

“I don’t know where the myth about the power of taxi drivers comes from — it is not a strong community,” he said. “With all due respect, they aren’t the car importers. I only know people who sit behind the wheel and work hard. It’s a working community that’s dealing with reality and my job is to enable them to cope on equal terms.

“We are not talking about the country’s rich,” Katz continued. “If someone pays for a taxi license, it doesn’t make sense for someone else to come along with a private vehicle and compete with him.”

Uber, an runaway international success, enables users to call taxis at short notice via their cell phones and is already being used in Israel. The company is seeking to push its UberX version, which enables any driver of a vehicle to offer taxi services.

Currently, only registered taxi drivers can accept fares for a ride. Thus, the Transportation Ministry would have to alter its regulations for UberX to be used legally.

Netanyahu on Sunday called on Katz to approve the use of the application, but the minister claimed that the system could be taken advantage of by terrorists and criminals.

“Do you want someone to take you in his car to Nablus [in the West Bank] in the middle of the night?” Katz challenged the prime minister. “If you want, you can deal with it. I don’t serve foreign tycoons; my job is to take care of the citizens of Israel.”

“Maybe I will deal with it,” said Netanyahu, who met with Uber CEO Travis Kalanick on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week. “Your problem is that you are in favor of competition, but not when it’s under your purview.”

“You say that to me, me who opened the skies to competition and the ports and the trains?” Katz fumed, insisting that he had no inherent issue with Uber but rather was merely insisting that the company abide by Israeli law. “The Uber product that they want to introduce is problematic because of unfair competition, and in Israel even more so because of security problems.”

Katz noted that, in Israel, taxi prices are monitored by the government.

“That’s exactly what I’m talking about,” Netanyahu said. “I don’t want a monitored price. I want to bring down the prices with competition.”

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