Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister has developed a close personal friendship with one of the richest and most controversial women in Israel, Ofra Strauss.
Ofra Strauss is a 51 year-old businesswoman, who divorced her second husband last year and she is the head of a $2 billion food company whose high prices triggered the biggest social protests in Israel’s history.
Ofra Strauss has been seen so often in Tony Blair’s company that the Israeli press has even speculated openly that they are having an affair.
It is an allegation Ofra Strauss’s spokesman yesterday angrily denied, while the former PM too is adamant there is “nothing improper” in the pair’s relationship.
Tony Blair 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 Tony Blair and Ofra Strauss 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 Cherie Blair, the former PM’s wife, suggesting she might like to clarify the nature of the relationship.
“For the information of Mrs Blair,” wrote the article.
“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 newspaper also reminded Cherie Blair that the house where her husband visited Ofra 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.
Ofra Strauss’s spokesman, Rani Rahav, said it was “ridiculous” for anyone to suggest there was any romantic element to her dealings with Tony Blair.
“There was never any skin between them, never. I have never been asked such an ugly question before.”
The spokesman also said Ofra Strauss was a close friend of both Tony and Cherie Blair.
Rani Rahav said Ofra Strauss had just returned from New York, where Tony Blair was also present in his official role, attending the debates on the future of Palestine at the UN General Assembly.
Tony Blair’s friends also say Ofra 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 Cherie 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 Tony Blair’s sex appeal to Israelis.
Dining in Tel Aviv with Ofra Strauss, Tony Blair seemed to enjoy his food with gusto, making sure he always “cleaned his plate”.
It is certainly evident that Ofra Strauss and Tony Blair enjoy each other’s company.
They have dined together among a group of friends in one of Tel Aviv’s finest restaurants, Montefiore Yavne, which is owned by Ofra Strauss’s brother and sister. The meal lasted more than two hours.
Restaurant staff said the group sat in the balcony section, a secluded area with discreet lighting. Having checked the place before their arrival, Tony Blair’s security remained outside. Tony Blair and Ofra 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 Tony Blair insisted that the pair have never dined alone as a couple.
Ofra 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 husband, Adi Keizman, is a property developer ten years her junior and known for his taste in expensive tailoring and sports cars. Before he married Ofra Strauss, Adi Keizman had dated an Israeli former Miss Universe. He is now engaged to model Esti Ginzburg.
In Israel, being friends with Ofra Strauss is seen as politically controversial.
Ofra Strauss 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, Strauss Group 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 Ofra Strauss firm 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 Ofra Strauss were “milking huge profits at the expense of the common people”.
Ofra Strauss is by no means the only multi-millionaire Tony Blair has cultivated since leaving Downing St in 2007. The former British PM has been widely criticized 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.
Ofra Strauss is not the only wealthy Israeli woman Tony Blair has tried to cultivate. According to press reports in Israel, he also tried to persuade Shari Arison, a billionaire heiress who owns Israel’s Bank Hap-oalim, to invest in the Palestinian territories.
Shari Arison, who is also author of a book of “new age” philosophy, declined, saying she was not sure whether her money would be safe.
Arison spokesman declined to say whether she and Tony Blair had stayed in touch.