Former MK and Developer Behind Tel Aviv's Dizengoff Center Dies at 88

Shmuel Flatto-Sharon was born in Poland and fled to France before the Holocaust. He immigrated to Israel after being charged with fraud and was elected to the Knesset in 1977 to avoid extradition

File photo: Shmuel Flatto-Sharon during former Tel Aviv-Jaffa mayor Shlomo Lahat's funeral, October 3, 2014.
Tomer Appelbaum

Former Knesset member and businessman Shmuel Flatto-Sharon passed away on Friday at 88, after being hospitalized three months ago for a heart attack. Flatto-Sharon was also known for being a celebrity – and a criminal with a big mouth. He died in the Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer.

Flatto-Sharon was one of the developers who built Dizengoff Center in Tel Aviv in 1977, the first mall in Israel, was famous for his direct and rough style of speech. He always spoke with a heavy French accent, and left behind the phrase from his days in the Knesset: “What have you done for the country?” as his mark on Israel’s collective memory.

As fitting for such a colorful and unusual person, many of his biographical details and his life story are a bit foggy – intentionally – and other details that he told were often exaggerated or even imaginary. In the most commonly accepted version of his life, he was born in Lodz in Poland in 1930 with the name Shmuel Sheibitz, the son of Esther and Josef Sheibitz. In 1933, his mother took him to Paris, but later returned to Poland, where he grew up with his grandparents until he was seven.

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In 1937, his uncle – dressed up as a woman – smuggled Flatto-Sharon back to Paris. He later said that his father, who remained in Poland, was murdered in the Holocaust along with 40 other relatives. When the Nazis invaded France, he and his mother fled their home and later he was put into hiding far from Paris.

He adopted the name Sami Flatto when he grew up, which he later changed to Shmuel Flatto-Sharon. He began making his fortune in various businesses, first in France and later elsewhere around the world in businesses such as recycling, transport, real estate, restaurants and hotels – along with a number of factories. His official website says that one of the factories was the biggest toilet paper factory in Europe and he was called the “king of the recycling industry in Paris.”

He preferred to leave the details of his businesses and revenues unclear. Over the years he told of how he also did business in oil, arms, wine, cosmetics and perfume. At the same time, he was very proud of his collection of art and his philanthropy.

File photo: Shmuel Flatto-Sharon at Dizengoff Center with the mall's managers, 2010.
Eyal Toueg

Flatto-Sharon was proud of becoming part of Parisian high society and that the restaurants, clubs and cabarets he built were the most popular and fashionable. But in 1975, after being charged with fraud in France, he made aliya to Israel. “I fell in love with the country like a man with a woman,” he said repeatedly.

He moved into a luxurious home in Savion, where he held ostentatious parties and receptions for the period’s most famous people: celebrities, politicians, businesspeople and media stars. To make it harder to extradite him back to France, he ran for the Knesset in 1977 at the head of his own party, and as the only one on his Knesset slate. His campaign included finding housing solutions for the underprivileged, as well as his own personal legal problems in France. He was elected and served in the Knesset until 1981. In a surprise, he won enough votes for a second Knesset seat for his party, but since he was a one-person slate, the party had only one MK.  

He was very proud of being in the Knesset, eating in the cafeteria with Menachem Begin and having his seat next to Moshe Dayan in the plenum, he said in an interview in 2013 with Israel Hayom. It was like a dream and an incredible honor he received from the people of Israel, and he was grateful for it his entire life, he said.

Israel refused to extradite him to France, but he ran into legal trouble in Israel too. He was convicted of election bribery because of his campaign and in 1984 he served his sentence doing public service with the police. In 1985, he was arrested in Italy but managed to flee to Israel using a disguise, before he was extradited from Italy to France, where he was called one of the biggest con artists in the world.

File photo: Shmuel Flatto-Sharon with Israeli celebrities at TV host Dudu Topaz's funeral, August 21, 2009.
Limor Edrey

In 2000, he was convicted in Israel of fraudulently receiving millions from a French company, and spent a few months in prison.

“I made a circus out of my life,” he told the Globes business daily in an interview two years ago. “I was young, I did a lot of things that were not always the best things in the world … I did a lot of things for Zionism but it’s also my business, that’s the trick, to do Zionism and make money from it.”  

In recent years he had a local radio show, and often insulted those he interviewed for the program, calling them such things as “idiot,” “traitor,” “capo,” and telling them to “shut their filthy mouths” and “I’m pissing on your theory.” He married three times and is survived by his third wife Clara and a son and daughter form his two previous marriages.