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CLEMENCY

All the Fugitive's Men in Israel

February 25, 2001|Yossi Melman | Yossi Melman is an Israeli author and journalist for Haaretz

TEL AVIV — In 1984, the U.S. Justice Department sent a "red notice" to its Israeli counterpart demanding that it arrest fugitive financier Marc Rich, an Israeli citizen thanks to the Jewish state's "right of return" law, the next time he visited the country. In 1994, Israel's Ministry of Justice formally replied to the U.S. request: "No."

Michael Ben-Yair, who was then Israel's attorney general and chief legal advisor to the government, explained his decision last week. "The 'red notice' was not followed by an extradition request or a copy of the charges and affidavits," he said. "We considered the issue and found it had no legal validity. The charges against Mr. Rich were fiscal and not fraud, and, therefore, the extradition treaty between the two countries did not cover his case."

But sources in the Ministry of Justice tell a different story. According to them, Rich paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to several prominent Israeli lawyers to use their influence and contacts on his behalf. Among them were Avner Hai-Shaki, a former minister of religion; Yaacov Neeman, who later became finance minister; and Amnon Goldenberg, an external legal advisor to the Mossad, Israel's foreign espionage agency. The U.S. Justice Department protested the Israeli decision, to no avail. Israel remained firm. Rich would not be arrested.

The episode is part of a larger story about how money buys Israeli politicians and influence and how Rich used Israel as a lever to obtain a pardon.

In his apologetic explanation for his controversial pardons of Rich and his partner, Pincus Green, former President Bill Clinton said that Israeli officials had asked him to grant the two men clemency. In response, Israeli leaders charged that Clinton was groping for an "excuse" by trying to deflect blame to Israel.

Yet, more than 50 prominent Israelis from all walks of life--politics, intelligence, universities, medical institutes, cultural and religious organizations--sent letters to Clinton urging him to pardon Rich and Green. These Israelis included caretaker Prime Minister Ehud Barak; Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami; Shabtai Shavit, a former head of the Mossad; Barak's Cabinet secretary Yitzhak Herzog; and Ehud Olmert, mayor of Jerusalem. They all praised Rich and Green for their charities--the Israel-based Doron Fund for Arts and Public Welfare and the Rich Foundation--and their generosity. Equally important, though not mentioned, were Rich's and Green's business relations with the Jewish state.

In the 1970s, the two men and their trade company, Marc Rich & Co., were significant suppliers of oil to Israel. A senior Israeli official said that Rich and his company bought oil either on the spot market or in Arab countries, then sold it without the sellers' knowledge to Israel's major oil companies. Rich and Green made big profits from these deals. A senior Israeli Cabinet minister said that the two were also instrumental in Israel's acquisition of "special strategic supplies" during the the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when Iraqi Scud missiles hit the Tel Aviv area.

Through these and other transactions, Rich and Green--especially the more social Rich--befriended and gained unlimited access to all Israeli prime ministers from Menachem Begin to Barak. To extend his influence and prestige in the corridors of power of Israel, Rich agreed to work with Mossad by becoming a "sayan," Hebrew for "helper" or "assistant."

Sayan play an important and unique role in the Mossad. Mostly of Jewish origins, they are the security net upon which Mossad agents can rely in emergencies or as providers of special assignments. Shavit defended his petition to Clinton by revealing that Rich had helped to establish contacts with authorities in Yemen, Ethiopia and Sudan during Mossad's operations to rescue Jews in those countries and bring them back to Israel.

But Rich's connections with the Mossad ran much deeper. His company's extensive branches throughout the Middle East were occasionally used to help Mossad gather intelligence and recruit agents.

Two years ago, the Belgium-born Rich gave a rare interview to the Israeli daily Maariv. In the interview, he categorically denied that he had ever contributed money to politicians and political causes in Israel. "I prefer to leave that to people who live in the country," said Rich, who has been living in the Swiss town of Zug since he fled the United States in 1983. Avner Azulay, a former Mossad operative who once provided personal security to Rich and his family and now serves as his Israeli fixer and as managing director of the Rich Foundation, confirmed Rich's statement. But both turned out to be inaccurate.

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