Israeli air force vet hits airwaves for small businesses

When Eitan Ben-Eliahu bailed out of the Israel air force, he landed on both feet. Many veterans are not so fortunate.

Ben Eliahu, a 37-year IAF veteran who retired in 2000 after serving four years as the force's overall commander, remembers the good old days, when a virtual pipeline existed between the air force and El Al airlines.

"Automatically, once you got out of the air force, you got a job [at El Al]," said Ben-Eliahu, 57, who, true to form, wore a leather bomber jacket during a recent trip to the Bay Area. "Every ex-soldier or ex-technician in the air force got a job either at El Al or in the Israeli aviation industry. They were growing at that time."

Now, things are different, he says.

"Today, these options no longer exist because [those professions] are full, and, more than that, they have shrunk due to economic problems. With all the proficiency these [veterans] bring to the market, they [still] have very, very much difficulty finding a job."

With others unable or unwilling to hire ex-soldiers, Ben-Eliahu decided he could help by going into business himself. He teamed up with old friend Carl Kaplan, the CEO of the Koret Israel Economic Development Fund, and accepted a volunteer position as the fund's chairman of the board.

The Koret fund provides loan guarantees to Israeli banks, allowing entrepreneurs and small-business professionals to take out loans to start up or improve their own businesses. Through multiple leveraging, the fund is able to facilitate $5.50 in financing for every dollar it invests, said Kaplan.

Ben-Eliahu estimates 2,000 professional soldiers leave the Israeli military each year, and reaching out to them was one of his first moves as chairman.

"They have the option to use their skills, their knowledge, and their experience, and have the capability to open a small business of their own," said Ben-Eliahu, in town with Kaplan to meet with Koret officials.

The retired general made a few calls, and information about Koret funds is now handed out to every soldier leaving the military, and, for that matter, every employee laid off by El Al and a number of other large Israeli companies. Special programs aimed at women and Israeli Arabs are also under way.

Ben-Eliahu — a highly recognizable figure in Israel — has been pushing the Koret fund through the media as well. Appearing on late-night TV recently with Eli Yatzpan, "the Jay Leno of Israel," Ben-Eliahu plugged the fund. Over the next two days alone, more than 250 people called the fund's hotline.

With the extra publicity — and, of course, a troubled economy — demand is way up for Koret loans. Having approved 204 loans all of last year, the fund green-lighted 102 loans through 2002's first three months alone.

Since 1994, the fund has given the nod to more than 1,300 loans, but this is still "just a small drop in the bucket" compared to what the Israeli government could do with a similar program, according to Kaplan.

"The government could be fostering a tremendous increase in job creation and economic activity at a much more efficient rate than what they're doing," he said. "They waste an awful lot of money on programs and policies that don't put financial assistance in the hands of the people that can use it. We're creating more taxes and more jobs and fewer people who are reliant on the state for support."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.