During the current election campaign, which is finally coming to an end, Ha'aretz broke two astonishing news items. One story is familiar to any newspaper reader in Israel: In early January 2003, journalist Baruch Kra got hold of a Justice Ministry document proving that South African businessman Cyril Kern loaned $1.5 million to Gilad Sharon, the son of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Although the Sharon family claimed that Kern is an old friend, that the money was returned to the lender and that there is no criminal offense involved in giving a private loan to a friend, the country was in an uproar. For good reason. The circumstances under which the loan was given, the fact that the general public didn't know about it, and the lack of clarity as to how how it was finally paid back, demanded a penetrating public debate. The prime minister's refusal to answer the questions raised by the loan affair increased the criticism of his conduct. Although there was no evidence that Cyril Kern received direct compensation from the government for his generosity, most Israelis who heard about the affair felt it proved something is rotten in Sharon's backyard. Something needs to be cleared up.
Unfortunately, the other astonishing story to be broken exposed by Ha'aretz during this election campaign is much less known. In early December 2002, correspondent Assaf Bergerfreund obtained the transcripts of police investigations accompanying an indictment served against businessman Gad Zeevi in the matter of selling Bezeq shares. From the transcripts published in the business section of this newspaper, from additional texts published later in other newspapers, and from an overall analysis of the affair published by business editor Guy Rolnik, the following facts emerge:
Toward the end of 1999, 20 percent of Bezeq shares were up for sale for about $700 million. Most of the main players in the Israeli economy showed an interest in acquiring them. The Bezeq transaction was conditional on receipt of a permit from the Communications Ministry and a cash payment of $30 million, which the purchaser would lose if he didn't receive the permit. Apart from Zeevi, none of the groups interested in purchasing the shares did so, since they weren't sure they would receive the necessary permit from the Communications Ministry. Zeevi was the only one who acted as though there were no possible problem, paid $30 million and received the shares.
At that same time, Zeevi held three different meetings with Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, then communications minister. Ben-Eliezer's associate, Yisrael Savyon, attended at least two of those meetings. Savyon is the Labor Party secretary in the Haifa district, an employee of Zeevi and the man who fielded Amram Mitzna for Labor leader in the past year.
Five days after receiving the permit from Ben-Eliezer's Communications Ministry, which enabled him to purchase the Bezeq shares, Zeevi wrote Yisrael Savyon a check for $2.5 million. Later it transpired that the person who had actually bought the Bezeq shares was not Zeevi, but Russian businessman Mikhail Chernoy. The Israel Police have suspected for years that Chernoy is connected to underworld figures in Russia, and that there is a real danger he would gain control of political centers of power in Israel.
Sound complicated? Not really. The main point is clear: The affair of the sale of Bezeq shares to Zeevi (openly) and to Mikhail Chernoy (secretly) is apparently one of the most serious financial scandals in Israel's history. It raises suspicions of corruption on a strategic level in Israel. A major Israeli asset was about to fall into the hands of characters suspected by Israel Police of belonging to the underworld. In one way or another, directors of major banks, flashy lawyers and various politicians were involved in this affair. But ultimately, the person who bears public responsibility for the deal that transferred Bezeq shares to Mikhail Chernoy is former Labor Party chairman Benjamin Ben-Eliezer. And in the final analysis, the main question aroused by the transaction is a sensational check made out with sensational timing in the name of one of closest people to the man who wants to be the prime minister of Israel, Amram Mitzna.
The question is: Why does every child in Israel know about Cyril Kern's $1.5 million, whereas only a chosen few know about Yisrael Savyon's $2.5 million? The question is: Why does every child in Israel know about every stupid thing done by every Likud small fry, whereas only few know that the person closest to Mitzna received $2.5 million from the straw man of a Russian mogul who was about to take control of the Israeli telecommunications monopoly?
Ask the Israeli media. Ask the Israel Police and the Israeli Prosecutor's Office.
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