Israeli Ambassador Promoted Firm Tied to pro-Netanyahu TV Channel During PM's Brazil Visit

Father of Channel 20 owner secured pilot project for his water production devices with Bolsonaro's government, sources say ■ Prime Minister's Office responds: 'Attempt to link PM to promoting Watergen is totally ridiculous'

File photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, January 6, 2019.
Gali Tibbon/Reuters

Israel’s ambassador to Brazil, a Likud member who is close to Benjamin Netanyahu, promoted the products of an Israeli company during the prime minister’s visit to Brazil last week.

Watergen, whose devices extract moisture from the air to produce water, is owned by Michael Mirilashvilli. His son, Yitzhak Mirilashvilli, controls Channel 20, an Israeli TV station known for its support of Netanyahu.

Michael Mirilashvilli arrived in Brasilia during Netanyahu’s diplomatic visit to promote sales of the company’s devices to the Brazilian government.

The ambassador, Yossi Shelley, told reporters in Netanyahu’s entourage that he encouraged the import of several sample devices. He added that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, with whom Shelley had been in contact before he was elected, is expected to give Watergen a break on import tariffs, which would help Mirilashvilli’s company penetrate the large Brazilian market.

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According to sources familiar with the details, Bolsonaro ordered two Watergen machines, one of which will apparently be installed at a Brazilian army base. The sources said Watergen was given an exclusive opportunity to display its technology when the Brazilian government let it install the devices in a square near Bolsonaro’s inauguration, which Netanyahu attended. According to the sources, Mirilashvilli had wanted to attend the ceremony with Netanyahu, but Shelley rejected the idea as inappropriate.

Yitzhak Mirilashvilli controls Channel 20, whose coverage tends to favor the prime minister. Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, give regular interview to the station. It reports widely on their accomplishments, devoting a great deal of screen time to his messages and his attacks on the prosecution and the police.

Watergen denied any connection between Netanyahu’s visit and Mirilashvilli’s, as did the Prime Minister’s Office and the Israeli Embassy in Brazil.

As TheMarker reported last May, in recent years Watergen has received numerous business opportunities in the wake of Netanyahu’s diplomatic travels, and the prime minister praises the startup frequently. Netanyahu has mentioned Watergen in his speeches, including his address to the United Nations General Assembly in 2017, during his visits to Africa, at the economic summit in Davos in 2017 and at the AIPAC convention last year.

Watergen representatives have visited several countries in parallel to Netanyahu, including during visits he made to the United States and Australia in 2017 and during a trip to Russia in January 2018, during which there was even a meeting among Mirilashvilli, Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Michael and Yitzhak Mirilashvili.
Eli Dasa and Chris Ratcliff/Bloomberg

On the sidelines of Netanyahu’s diplomatic activity, Watergen representatives have been able to meet leading world figures, such as UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who visited Jerusalem in August 2017. At an event hosted by Netanyahu on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in 2016, company representatives demonstrate their product to 26 African diplomats, including Rwandan President Paul Kagame.

Watergen employees accompanied Netanyahu on his visit to India in January 2018, where they signed a memorandum of understanding for commercial cooperation with the Indian conglomerate Tata. The memorandum was signed after Mirilashvilli had a personal meeting the Tata chairman Ratan Tata and even a meeting with Indian President Narendra Modi at a conference in India in November 2017.

Over the past year, the company displayed its machines at diplomatic events held by the U.S. Embassy in Israel, including the inauguration of the embassy in Jerusalem and July Fourth celebrations. A Watergen promotional video even found its way into an interview Netanyahu gave to the prestigious U.S. news magazine “60 Minutes,” as an example of breakthrough Israeli technology.

In 2017, Watergen representatives had two meetings with Scott Pruitt, who until recently was the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. After those meetings the agency signed an agreement with the company to conduct a pilot project whose scope is not known. According to a Wall Street Journal article in March 2018, in Pruitt’s diary there is a comment in the note about the first meeting that it was “at the request of Sheldon Adelson,” the casino magnate and owner of Israel Hayom newspaper.

Another interesting fact relates to renowned lawyer Alan Dershowitz, a friend and supporter of Netanyahu. Dershowitz holds 5 percent of Watergen’s shares, serves as a company director and has direct ties with the Mirilashvilli family. Dershowitz frequently defends the prime minister and argues that there is no basis to the suspicions arising from the three major investigations against him. At least once this year he defended Netanyahu this way on Channel 20’s main news broadcast.

In 2017, Watergen signed an agreement with the Shurook Initiative, a nonprofit organization founded by Kito de Boer, a former chief of mission for the Middle East Quartet, to promote investment in basic infrastructure that would benefit the Palestinian population. Shurook was seeking solutions to the severe lack of drinking water in the Gaza Strip. Under the agreement, Watergen was to begin a pilot program to supply drinking water to Gazans in cooperation with local entrepreneurs who would be franchisees. Shurook was going to sponsor the project and help raise money for it.

During Guterres’ visit to Israel in 2017, Watergen Executive Chairman Maxim Pasik was given an opportunity to demonstrate the company’s technology to the secretary general. Pasik asked Guterres for UN aid in funding the Gaza project. During the event, which Mirilashvilli also attended, Netanyahu helped Pasik with his presentation.

“A thousand of our machines will solve Gaza’s water problem,” Pasik claimed. “How much does such a unit cost?” Guterres asked. “$120,000 Pasik replied. Netanyahu scribbled something on a piece of paper and said that $120 million would solve Gaza’s water problem. Guterres may have been impressed, but the Gaza project apparently never got past the pilot stage. A source familiar with the details said that there was concern about the anger that could result from the publicity over Israelis making money off Gaza’s problems.

The Prime Minister’s Office said in response, “The prime minister and the people in his office were not involved in any way in Watergen’s arrival in Brazil, and until you contacted us we had no idea they had been there. The attempt to link the prime minister to promoting Watergen is totally ridiculous.”

The Israeli Embassy in Brazil said, “The embassy mobilized to assist Watergen as it helps any Israeli company seeking to display its wares in Brazil. The procedures involved in organizing the presentation of the system were made directly by company representatives and the relevant officials in Brasilia. As far as we understood, at no stage was the system displayed at the inauguration ceremony or near the presidential palace. As we understood it, the system was displayed at a parking lot in a different part of the city, near a police station. We will be pleased to assist any Israeli manufacturer interested in promoting its business in Brazil; we see the tightening of trade relations between the countries as an important objective.”