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Partner Communications chairman to step down

By Steven Scheer

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Ilan Ben-Dov plans to step down as chairman of Partner Communications , Israel's second largest mobile phone operator, the company said on Sunday.

Partner said in a statement Ben-Dov -- also the controlling shareholder -- intends to continue to serve as a director of Partner and that the board will discuss appointing a new chairman in the next few days.

The company did not give a reason for Ben-Dov's resignation or state when he would end his term.

Partner's shares were down 1.6 percent at midday in Tel Aviv compared with a flat broader marker.

Ben-Dov controls Partner, which operates under the Orange brand name, through stakes in Scailex and its parent Suny Electronics .

Scailex, the sole importer of Samsung mobile handsets in Israel, holds 44.54 percent of Partner's shares while Suny has an additional 1.4 percent.

Ori Licht, an analyst at the IBI Investment House, said investors would ultimately approve of Ben-Dov's decision to step down since reports in the Israeli media about problems with his other businesses were weighing on its shares.

"Ben-Dov apparently decided to take a step back and remain an owner and a director but not the man who stands up front and represents the face of the company," Licht said.

He noted that Partner's main rival, Cellcom , was trading at a 20 percent premium to Partner, which the market calls the "Ben-Dov premium."

Last month, debt-laden Scailex said it was seeking to sell an unspecified amount of shares in Partner to a strategic partner, while maintaining control, to shore up its balance sheet.

Scailex bought a controlling stake in Partner from Hutchison Telecommunications <0013.HK> in 2009 for $1.38 billion, or $17.50 per share, well above Friday's closing price on Nasdaq of $9.02.

Scailex's debt is estimated at more than 3 billion shekels ($781 million). In recent weeks, the Israeli units of Standard & Poor's and Moody's Investors Service both cut its ratings citing less than adequate liquidity.

Scailex has also failed in an attempt to sell 50 percent of its import and distribution activities for Samsung mobile phones.

Israel's corporate sector has seen a wave of top executives announcing plans to step down. Israel Chemicals President and Chief Executive Akiva Mozes is to go after 13 years in the job. [ID:nL6E8C802A] Bank Leumi CEO Galia Maor said she will step down after 16 years, while Shlomo Yanai will leave in May after five years as president and CEO of Teva Pharmaceutical Industries .

($1 = 3.84 shekels)

(Additional reporting by Tova Cohen. Editing by Jane Merriman)

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