Netanyahus, Sami Ofer
Sara and Benjamin Netanyahu with Sami Ofer at a groundbreaking ceremony at Tel Aviv’s Sourasky Medical Center in 2006. Photo by Moti Kimche
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Despite the drama created by MK Carmel Shama-Hacohen it wasn't the Mosad, the military censor or the head of security at the defense ministry that cut short the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee discussion of the Ofer Brothers affair. The move was the initiative of MK Shama-Hacohen himself, and if he thought this would lower the flames, he got the exact opposite result: The flames leaped higher than ever before.

His decision to stop the meeting not only infringed upon the parliament's reputation as an independent body and the principle of separation of powers, but actually helped feed the rumor mill and the conspiracy theories, which until now had to rely on an army of lawyers and publicity agents hired for tens of thousands of dollars by the Ofer family.

Behind the scenes, however, developments did take place. It seems the Ofers and the defense establishment have reached a quiet understanding on a cease-fire. The defense establishment wants to take the issue off the national agenda, fearing that public discussion would move in unwanted directions. This is what former head of the Mosad, Meir Dagan, aimed at when he somewhat enigmatically summed up the entire case in just one word: "exaggerating."

The Ofer family, for its part, released a press statement that seeks to calm tensions with the government but carries a considerable amount of chutzpah. The statement says that "we'd like to stress that we respect the statements by the Prime Minister's Office and the Defense Ministry yesterday. Disclosures by alleged close associates of the family were not made with the family's agreement and are certainly unacceptable to us, and we are sorry they were quoted as they were."

But the prime minister and defense minister made their statements precisely to debunk the Ofer family's foolish attempt to create the false impression that they operated their trade with Iran with the knowledge and authority of the state. Now, they're not only renouncing these attempts but are pushing the blame onto their own publicity agents, who supposedly never represented them.

At the end of the day, the Ofer family is withdrawing from its defense line that they were operating on Israel's behalf and carried out tasks for it in Iran. But even if they did once offer service to the nation under the guise of their commercial activity, this doesn't give them any immunity whatsoever.

As usual, the actual explanation for the events is much simpler. The affair has several aspect: legal, financial, security, diplomatic and ethical. Legally speaking, the Ofer family broke Israeli law by trading with Iran. The directive against trade with the enemy prohibits trade with Iran. Period. No discounts, no exceptions. This is why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the defense minister reacted so strongly to the Ofers' attempt to cast the impression they didn't break any law.

Even if the Ofer family does assist the security organizations from time to time, this gives them no license to break Israeli law. Moreover, it also violates sanctions placed by the United Nations Security Council that prohibit trading with the Iranian national shipping company. Tanker Pacific, which sold the tanker to the Iranians, is a subsidiary of the Ofer Brothers Group.

The Ofer brothers and their legal advisors have now come up with a new sophisticated legal argument. In a nutshell, it goes: Please prove there's any connection between Sami Ofer and his son Idan, and Tanker Pacific. The connection is indeed difficult to prove, because Tanker Pacific has been registered through legal structures registered in various tax havens around the globe, to minimize tax payments for the company and to make it difficult to link the owners - the Ofer family - to the company.

But the American administration, at least, thinks it's clear enough. The Ofer Brothers Group does own Tanker Pacific. They also say this was a foreign company and thus no Israeli law was broken. Financially speaking, there's no doubt the Ofer family was trading with Iran for purely business motives. They were doing it to maximize profit - just like they mine for potassium and other minerals in the Dead Sea and cause it to dry up, although this time it's carried out with the knowledge and authorization of the state.

Shipping sources in Israel say that to judge from shipping sites that reported on Ofer family ships visiting Iran in recent years, the most careful estimates of their trade there would amount to tens of millions of dollars. The same sources say that Tanker Pacific never docked in Israel, for fear it would impede its ability to dock at Arab and Iranian ports.

Trading with Iran also causes military damage, however indirect, to Israel. Trading on the Iranian energy market strengthens the ayatollahs and allows them to keep building their missiles and nuclear programs, which threaten Israel. Iran can use the money it profits to build missiles that may one day be fired toward Israel.

But in the diplomatic field, the affair caused Israel very serious damage. Israel now appears as a state of double standards. It demands other nations to escalate the sanctions on Iran and enforce them. The Ofer brothers and the rather poor conduct of Israeli governments in recent years may well cause countries that Israel approaches on the manner to advise Israel to check its own house first.

And who will believe Prime Minister Netanyahu next time he claims Iran is an existential threat to Israel? Just as importantly, Israel's moral stand on Iran suffered a fatal blow. Don't preach to us about how hypocritical the world is for trading with Iran out of greed, Israel will be told. This is exactly what your own citizens are doing.