Swedish goulash and sofas whet Israeli appetites at Netanya Ikea

NETANYA — Ikea Israel, at 248,000 square feet the largest store in the Middle East, opened to the public on Tuesday just off the Poleg interchange here. At a conservative estimate, five-figure attendance was expected on the opening days.

"We are ready for something of an onslaught," said store manager Eyal Slouk at a press tour Monday, "but I think we can cope."

Altogether there are more than 6,000 items on sale on the store's two floors, from sofas to light fixtures, from complete kitchens and bathrooms to carpets, from beds to stuffed animals to frying pans and even plants.

Ikea, with 160 stores in 30 countries — including a 274,000 facility in Emeryville — is a complete home furnishings and design store whose business philosophy is to provide a broad variety of functional and good quality furniture and household goods at low prices. There's a strong do-it-yourself component to the merchandise, which is often unfinished and comes disassembled. The customer is expected to transport his purchases, but both delivery and assembly are available.

And if you're tired from traipsing around, there's a second floor cafeteria where you can get a plate of Swedish goulash. Ikea master chef Peter Andersson has been working with the local staff adapting the company's menus (kosher, of course) to Israel.

The idea of Ikea Israel has been in development since 1993, says general manager Dov Rochman. Apart from the building, which is leased, Ikea Israel has invested nearly $14 million in the project. There are currently 312 employees, all of whom have spent at least a month in training.

"Customer service and relations was a big part of that," said Majd Abu Jumeh, one of the cashiers.

This week's opening is not just a commercial story, but a political one, fueled by the actions of Ikea founder and board chairman, Ingvar Kamprad, who has acknowledged membership in pro-Nazi Swedish movements during the 1940s and '50s and who has also been accused of kowtowing to the Arab boycott of Israel.

The Nazi connection was first made known in November 1994, when the Stockholm daily Expressen found Kamprad's name in the archives of a Swedish pro-Nazi activist, Per Engdahl, who had recently died. Kamprad admitted his involvement in a hand-written statement that was sent to Ikea's 25,000 employees worldwide.

In the note, Kamprad called his activities "a part of my life which I bitterly regret," and said he had cut off contacts in the 1950s when he "realized this was a mistake."

There was also the issue of a possible "de facto" compliance with the Arab boycott, according to Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.