With two masters
Avigdor Lieberman's private account in Cyprus, which remains active, is managed in dollar terms. In a relatively short period, from the end of January until the beginning of May 2001, when he served as an MK and afterward as a cabinet minister, large withdrawals - upward of $200,000 - were made from the account.
On January 24, 2001, while Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon were waging their campaigns against each other in the bid to be prime minister, Lieberman withdrew about $50,000 from the account. Six days later, $50,000 was transferred to Lieberman's checking account in Cyprus from a fixed-deposit account. On February 15, Lieberman again withdrew $50,000 from the checking account, and a week later, shortly before Lieberman took over as national infrastructure minister in the Sharon government, the same amount was again transferred from a fixed-deposit account to his checking account.
Lieberman was appointed national infrastructure minister on March 7, 2001. A day later he transferred $35,000 to the Sheraton Plaza Hotel in Jerusalem. On March 19, he withdrew another $15,000 from the checking account. Three days later, another $75,000 was transferred from a fixed-deposit account, and on the same day Lieberman transferred about $60,000 to Lior Tenenbaum.
An Israeli who divides his time between his home in the affluent community of Kfar Shmaryahu, outside Tel Aviv, and business trips to republics of the former Soviet Union, Tenenbaum is a central figure in Lieberman's business dealings. In the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, Tenenbaum began to engage in transactions in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan, focusing on business involving the cotton industry. Later, after consolidating his ties in the republics, he started to import and export metals and lumber.
At the end of 1999, Lieberman was hired by Nativ el Hamizrach CEO Andy Boiangiu to set up an apparatus for creating commercial ties with the lumber industry in Ukraine. Lumber became the focus of the company; it began to import it from the area of Czernowitz in Ukraine, on the border with Romania. Sources in the lumber industry explained that in contrast to the import of lumber from Scandinavia, which is done according to clear criteria, obtaining a permit to trade in quality lumber from countries of the former Soviet Union entails mainly "good connections." And Tenenbaum had them.
Tenenbaum's task was to buy trees for his company, to send them to be processed in sawmills and to ship the finished product to Israel. Initially, Nativ el Hamizrach used Ukrainian sawmills, which were subsequently upgraded by an Austrian company, Placzek, owned by Martin Schlaff. Schlaff's Vienna-based international trading company also helped Nativ el Hamizrach locate Austrian clients and lumber merchants.
In response to queries for this article, the official responsible for this sector in Placzek, Leon Lewkowicz, did not return repeated calls from Haaretz.
Tenenbaum later related that the payments he received from Nativ el Hamizrach and from Trasimeno were for consultancy services, to pay suppliers and to cover expenses in obtaining franchises and permits. The money was transferred to him from the Israel- and Cyprus-based companies to accounts he held in Ukraine.
The ties with Schlaff, Tenenbaum said, began at the end of 1999 or the beginning of 2000, after Lieberman entered the Knesset. Tenenbaum was contacted by a representative of Schlaff, who told him that he had heard from Nativ el Hamizrach that he was an expert in the lumber trade and that Placzek wanted to work with him. Tenenbaum said that he knew Schlaff and Lieberman were friends. The middleman became a servant to two masters.
Lumber, gas and oil
Employees in Nativ el Hamizrach this week sounded more sure of themselves than Tenenbaum; they said Lieberman himself had forged the connection between him and Schlaff. Tenenbaum said he had gone to Vienna and met with Schlaff, who explained to him that Placzek was interested in getting back into the Ukraine market, having lost its permits there after the collapse of the Soviet Union. After Schlaff visited Ukraine, Tenenbaum related, they started to work together. At this stage, Tenenbaum noted, he was barely active in Nativ el Hamizrach, because the company did not send him money.
At the end of 2005, Tenenbaum said, Schlaff sold his lumber business to a Ukrainian firm and since then has maintained indirect ties with him, in projects related to gas and oil. As noted, the fact that money was transferred from Lieberman's account, while he served as a minister, to Tenenbaum's account strengthened the suspicion that Lieberman continued to be involved in the companies' business affairs.
Tenenbaum refused this week to talk to Haaretz about his business affairs. "I have no interest in talking. I am a businessman who works abroad. I have no interest in getting into things in Israel. I know what you are talking about - let's say you didn't find the right person to talk to. Drop the matter and that's all."
Tenenbaum's partner, Ronit Guy, who received $10,000 from Trasimeno in May 2001 (and $85,000 from Mountain View Assets a day after the wine deal with Chernoy), said: "We are his [Lieberman's] friends, there is no doubt of that, but we are not connected to him in business. Apart from organizing an evening for him before the elections, when I invited many people here, I have nothing to do with him ... I saw him a few times in my life, but I don't talk to him, I am not involved with him. I don't know where this is coming from. I don't understand how my name got mixed up in this."
Are you familiar with all of Lior's business affairs?
And he is not connected to Lieberman in any way?
"No, he is connected independently to himself. He is not connected to Lieberman in anything."
Then how did his name get connected to bank accounts that Lieberman has in Cyprus? How could it be that he transferred $60,000 to him and you didn't know?
"I don't know. It all seems imaginary. He wasn't at all involved in this matter. And I know all there is to know about Lior because I do his books."
Maybe you don't know everything?
"I know everything, believe me. Not only are we a couple, we have lived together for many years."
'He gave us a hand'
Nativ el Hamizrach Cyprus became Trasimeno in 2001. After the Lieberman era, the shareholder and CEO of the company was Andrei Papadopoulo, from the Cyprus firm of Andreas Neocleous, who continued to share the "mutual client" with attorney Many and update him about the companies' activities.
The choice of Neocleous, one of the leading financial lawyers in Cyprus, was obvious: His firm has representations in Moscow, Budapest, Kiev and Prague, he is active in Europe and the Middle East, and he is an expert in representing international companies. A former member of the Cyprus parliament and the vice president of the International Academy of Tax Advisers, Neocleous is considered a world expert in tax matters, and his firm offers a range of legal services to companies and businessmen who want to take advantage of the generous tax relief available on the island.
Trasimeno and Nativ el Hamizrach sold lumber to Israeli and international companies. In some cases, payment was made to the Cyprus account, in some cases to the account in Israel. Thus, for example, between January 2000 and June 2001, Triwall Containers - which manufactures cardboard boxes and wooden pallets, and has factories in Netivot and Netanya - paid Trasimeno more than $300,000; Gal Pallets, one of the largest manufacturers of wooden pallets in Israel, transferred $75,000 to a Limassol bank.
Like Tenenbaum, Lieberman's confidants Gershan Trestman and Igor Snaider continued to benefit from the booming lumber business. After the boss entered politics, Snaider, who was Lieberman's chauffeur for many years, went to Eastern Europe and continued to deal with ongoing matters.
On May 18, 2001, a day after the wine deal with Chernoy, Trestman received $250,000 from Mountain View Assets. The money was recorded as a loan. Ten days later, he received another $70,000 from the account, and on the same day transferred $270,000 to the Trasimeno account. A week later he withdrew $210,000 from the Trasimeno account. On June 21, he transferred $7,000 to Mountain View Assets; the money was recorded as a loan repayment.
Trestman immigrated to Israel in 1990. He does not speak Hebrew. People in Nokdim describe him as an intellectual, a poet and a writer, who holds long talks with Lieberman about Pushkin and Tolstoy. A neighbor in the settlement says that he works closely with Lieberman and therefore moved to Jerusalem about a year ago. Trestman's wife, Ludmilla, confirmed this account: "We met Lieberman in our first days in the country. We lived in trailers that were next to each other. He helped us, gave us a hand, and I thank him very much." She adds that they were also friends with Igor Snaider, who is not living in Israel today. In Nokdim, she explained, "the relations between the Russian speakers are very good." She added that there were no business connections between her husband and Lieberman: "It was just good neighbors, that is all. Now he is working in the party, but that is something else. Now he is working with the press and the media."
In 2001, your husband conducted transactions involving large sums of money in Cyprus bank accounts.
Trestman: "That is something I am not involved in. My husband has worked abroad for a few years, but in his own affairs; it has nothing to do with Yvette [Lieberman's nickname]."
Even though Gershan Trestman withdrew hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Trasimeno account, he is not known to the authorities in Israel as a businessman, but rather as a not particularly well-off writer and lecturer. As far as is known, there are no assets registered to his name in Israel. In the past few years he has flown abroad dozens of times - to Russia, Moldova and Cyprus, among other destinations.
From 1999 to 2004, Nativ el Hamizrach prospered, selling lumber to Israeli companies in the millions of shekels. In addition to Triwall and Gal Pallets, Ltd. its clients included the major players of the lumber and construction industry in Israel: Tubul, a construction materials company owned by the Jerusalem-based Tubul family (Simu Tubul, one of the company's owners, a member of the Likud central committee and a Lieberman confidant, was questioned by police a few months ago in connection with the investigation of the Israel Tax Authority); Meir Pines & Sons, which imports lumber for building; Botwin, a company that sells lumber for construction, carpentry and tile roofs; Kargal, which specializes in cardboard packaging; and the real estate firm Bonei Hatichon Civil Engineering & Infrastructures, Ltd., which deals mainly in residential construction.
The revenues of Nativ el Hamizrach skyrocketed in the years when Lieberman was an MK and a cabinet minister: from about NIS 1 million in 1999 to more than NIS 5 million in 2000, NIS 8.5 million in 2001, NIS 6 million in 2002 and NIS 4 million in 2003. In 2004, revenues fell by half, to about NIS 2 million, and in the past two years they have stood at hundreds of thousands of shekels a year.
In 2004, revenues fell by half, to about NIS 2 million, and in the past two years they have stood at hundreds of thousands of shekels a year. Since 2004, new and more productive sources of income were generated for Lieberman. At the age of 21, his daughter established a "business consultancy" company, and within three years more than NIS 7 million flowed into the firm from unknown sources abroad. In the years when he was not in the Knesset or the government, Lieberman withdrew from the company salaries of hundreds of thousands of shekels. Upon his appointment as minister of strategic affairs in October 2006, his daughter founded another company, MLG Jerusalem Properties, Ltd. The NFIU is now examining whether the minister prima facie conducted business through his daughter's company.