Powerful: Ms Strauss chairs the Strauss Group, Israel's second largest food company
Cherie Blair has been warned by the Israeli press to keep an eye on her husband's relationship with the controversial Ms Strauss
Tony Blair has developed a close personal friendship with one of the richest – and most controversial – women in Israel. Ofra Strauss, 51, who divorced her second husband last year, is the head of a £1.3billion food company whose high prices triggered the biggest social protests in Israel’s history.
She has been seen so often in Mr Blair’s company that the Israeli press has even speculated openly that they are having an affair.
It is an allegation Ms Strauss’s spokesman yesterday angrily denied, while Mr Blair too is adamant there is ‘nothing improper’ in the pair’s relationship.
The former Prime Minister is a frequent visitor to Israel through his role as the international Middle East peace envoy representing the so-called ‘Quartet’ – the United Nations, United States, European Union and Russia.
The apparent closeness between Ms Strauss and Mr Blair is such that earlier this year a columnist for Maariv, a highly respected daily Hebrew newspaper, went so far as to write an ‘open letter’ to Mr Blair’s wife Cherie, suggesting she might like to clarify the nature of the relationship.
For the information of Mrs Blair,’ the article began. ‘Very, very quietly this weekend, the official car allocated to Tony Blair by the Quartet glided through the gates of Ofra’s house, which is protected by tight security measures… all kinds of bad people have called me trying to suggest this visit had the character of a sexy conspiracy, so I’m handing the matter over to you to handle personally.’
The paper also reminded Mrs Blair that the house where her husband visited Ms Strauss had been the subject of a furious row between the divorcee and the local council, because she had built an open-air Jacuzzi in the garden without planning permission.
Last night Ms Strauss’s spokesman, Rani Rahav, said it was ‘ridiculous’ for anyone to suggest there was any romantic element to her dealings with Mr Blair. ‘There was never any skin between them, never. I have never been asked such an ugly question before.’
He said Ms Strauss was a close friend of both Tony and Cherie Blair. ‘She is a very close friend of both of them, but she doesn’t want to talk about them,’ Mr Rahav said.
When The Mail on Sunday arrived yesterday at Ms Strauss’s smart marble villa, surrounded by well-groomed gardens, and tried to ask her for an interview, Mr Rahav was on the phone within minutes, threatening to call the police. ‘You are making a big mistake,’ he said. ‘This is Israel, not England, and we are the law here.’
He said Ms Strauss had just returned from New York – where Mr Blair was also present in his official role, attending the debates on the future of Palestine at the UN General Assembly.
Mr Blair’s friends also say Ms Strauss is a friend to both the former premier and his wife, with whom she has worked on women’s issues.
The open letter to Mrs Blair was not the only speculation to appear in Maariv.
Another article stated: ‘Ofra Strauss is grooming her friendship with Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister and Quartet representative.
Ofra’s neighbours tell me that she wants to know whenever there’s some special event in Tony’s honour – and that happens a lot.’
In the wake of such pieces, others have written of Mr Blair’s sex appeal to Israelis.
An Israeli news website wrote earlier this month that while David Cameron was cleaning up London after the riots, Mr Blair had ‘reasons to smile’, noting that he was a ‘milky, throbbing alpha male with unexplained sex appeal’, and that on his visits to Tel Aviv he ‘awakens hidden desires’.
Dining in Tel Aviv, it added, Mr Blair seemed to enjoy his food with gusto, making sure he always ‘cleaned his plate’.
It is certainly evident that Ms Strauss and Mr Blair enjoy each other’s company.
Inquiries by The Mail on Sunday have established they have dined together among a group of friends in one of Tel Aviv’s finest restaurants, Montefiore Yavne, which is owned by Ms Strauss’s brother and sister. The meal lasted more than two hours.
Staff said the group sat in the balcony section, a secluded area with discreet lighting. Having checked the place before their arrival, Mr Blair’s security remained outside. Mr Blair and Ms Strauss have also dined together at another high-end establishment across the street, the Montefiore Hotel.
A senior staff member there declined to say whether there were others in their party but sources close to Mr Blair insisted last night that the pair have never dined alone as a couple.
Ms Strauss’s first husband, Dan Lahat, to whom she was married for 18 years, was a son of a former mayor of Tel Aviv. Her second, Adi Keizman, is a property developer ten years her junior and known for his taste in expensive tailoring and sports cars.
Before he married Ms Strauss, Mr Keizman had dated an Israeli former Miss Universe.
He is now engaged to model Esti Ginzburg.
In Israel, being friends with Ms Strauss is seen as politically controversial.
She is the chairman and former chief executive of the Strauss Group, a food conglomerate she inherited from her father, Michael, which makes dairy products, snacks and confectionery.
Because it has so little competition, the firm is officially designated a monopoly under Israeli law, meaning its prices are supposed to be regulated by the government.
In July, however, the prices charged by Strauss Group for yoghurt and cottage cheese reached such a level that tens of thousands of protesters began living in a ‘tent city’ in central Tel Aviv, and for three months mounted weekly demonstrations that attracted up to half a million people at a time.
Other monopoly firms were also the targets of the protest, dubbed the Israeli Arab Spring. One group of protesters set up an encampment on the grass verge opposite Ms Strauss’s house in the affluent suburb of Tzahala.
The camp’s leader, Itzhak Elrov, said they were there because ‘tycoons’ like Ms Strauss were ‘milking huge profits at the expense of the common people’.
Yesterday her neighbours said they were not surprised by the protests, given the widening gap between rich and poor in Israel.
She’s one of the richest in a place where a tiny minority own 80 per cent of the wealth,’ said Chaim Goldman, who lives opposite.
Chaim Asa, a strategic security adviser to successive Israeli prime ministers and the founder of a new internet-based political movement which has sprung up in the wake of the protests said Israeli politics had become ‘corrupted’ by the close relationship between politicians and tycoons such as Ms Strauss.
Did he find it strange that a former Labour Prime Minister should cultivate such friendships?
I don’t think he’s a socialist any more: he wants to be a tycoon himself,’ he said. ‘Maybe one of the reasons he likes Ms Strauss so much is that she has so much money.
Ms Strauss is by no means the only multi-millionaire Mr Blair has cultivated since leaving Downing St in 2007. He has been widely criticised for blurring his official duties as a diplomat with lucrative business opportunities for his private consulting firm, Tony Blair Associates, whose clients include the rulers of Kuwait and Abu Dhabi.
If he worked for any of the Quartet’s individual components, such as the UN, EU or UK Government, he could not act in such a fashion and would have to make a full declaration of his financial interests. As Quartet representative, however, he does neither, and estimates of the wealth he has amassed since leaving office range from £25m to £60m.
As well as his ‘consulting’, and working for the US bank JP Morgan, which pays him £2m a year, Mr Blair is available for one-off engagements – at a very high price.
The Mail on Sunday has learnt that, last year, the renowned Interdisciplinary Centre in the Israeli town of Herzliya asked Mr Blair to take part in a prestigious ‘war game’ involving top military personnel, politicians and academics, to examine what might happen if Israel went to war with Iran.
Mr Blair replied that he would be delighted to participate, but only for a fee of £100,000. ‘That was out of the question,’ a centre official said.
Ms Strauss is not the only wealthy Israeli woman Mr Blair has tried to cultivate. According to Press reports in the country, he also tried to persuade Shari Arison, a billionaire heiress who owns Israel’s Bank Hap-oalim, to invest in the Palestinian territories.
Ms Arison – who is also author of a book of ‘new age’ philosophy – declined, saying she was not sure whether her money would be safe.
Her spokesman declined to say whether she and Mr Blair had stayed in touch.