The Multimillion Dollar Panama Channel to West Bank Settlements

The Amana movement that carries out settlement construction in the West Bank has been receiving tens of millions from a mystery company in the Central American tax haven, via a nonprofit that was also controlled by the movement. A Haaretz investigation as part of the Settlement Dollars Project.

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Construction in West Bank settlement Modi'in Illit, March 2011.
Construction in West Bank settlement Modi'in Illit, March 2011.Credit: AP
Chaim Levinson
Uri Blau

The departure point was Panama. In recent years, tens of millions of shekels left there, taking a questionable route until they landed in the coffers of Amana, which builds homes in West Bank settlements and outposts. Along the way, the money went via a mysterious Argentinian tycoon, a fictitious address in New York, and a nonprofit organization controlled with a strong hand by Ze’ev “Zambish” Hever, the secretary-general of Amana.

All of this happened at a time when Amana had run into financial problems, and the money from the other side of the globe assisted it in continuing to put down stakes in the West Bank, beyond Israel’s Green Line.

The information about the conduct of the nonprofit controlled by Hever – an organization called “Hakeren letipuah hara’ayon hazioni” (“The Fund for Nurturing the Zionist Idea,” or FNZI) – was provided to the registrar of nonprofit organizations at the Israeli Justice Ministry in October 2014, more than 18 months ago.

In his investigation into the matter, the registrar confirmed findings that raised questions regarding the fund’s activities, the source of its capital, and money transfers to and from the fund. However, even after 20 months of investigation, the registrar’s report, obtained by Haaretz, shows that, for the time being, he doesn’t intend to impose any kind of sanctions against the nonprofit, nor pass along material for further examination by other authorities.

The Haaretz investigation has uncovered details regarding the conduct of the nonprofit that, for some reason, didn’t set off alarm bells at the office of the Registrar of Nonprofits. One of them relates to an obscure philanthropist by the name of Diego Adolfo Marynberg, a Jewish businessman of Argentinian origin who had control of a company that channeled tens of millions of shekels from Panama to FNZI, and from there to right-wing movements and other organizations controlled by Hever. 

The investigation followed the trail of the circuitous money transfers from the nonprofits to Hever’s companies, this despite the rules only allowing nonprofits to transfer funds to entities that are not-for-profit. In addition, nonprofits (“amutot” in Hebrew) are required to report on all their operations. But the money transfers between the nonprofit and Amana were not included in the financial report that the fund filed with the registrar of nonprofits in 2013. 

Hever sought to explain the movement of the money as loans, but if they were indeed loans, most were not repaid and were provided without the necessary approval, and without specifying an interest rate – all contrary to what was required.

From the heights of his Manhattan office on 59th Street, adjoining Central Park, Marynberg has control of an investment firm that he owns. The manner in which the 41-year-old businessman accumulated his wealth can be gleaned from various reports relating to his businesses in Venezuela, under the leadership of a man who was very far removed from settlement ideology: the late President Hugo Chavez. 

According to reports, Marynberg earned millions of dollars of commissions as an intermediary in transactions involving Venezuela’s sale of gold. The tycoon’s name also came up in court documents filed in a New York court. Although he is not a party to the proceedings, it is claimed in the documents that Marynberg had been given a preference in bond purchases by virtue of his connections with Argentina’s then-economy minister.

Marynberg is also behind an entity called Fundacion Adar, from Panama, which directed tens millions of shekels into FNZI’s coffers. Other contributors to Hever’s nonprofit over the years included Miami’s Falic family, which has been a regular contributor to right-wing politicians, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Ze’ev Hever, head of the Amana movement and a lucrative nonprofit. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Israeli business daily Calcalist reported this week that Marynberg is currently negotiating to buy Israeli real-estate company Gan Ha’ir from businessman Shlomo Eliahu. The sale would include luxury properties in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. He also met with Bank Leumi and Bank Hapoalim in connection with the mooted multimillion-dollar sale.

The other side of the equation is in Israel. Hever is a former member of the Jewish Underground (a terror organization that operated in the 1980s) and a man whose name is closely associated with the settlement movement in the West Bank. He is also well-connected to many top politicians.

FNZI is part of a network of companies and nonprofits with connections to him, and these are responsible for most of the construction in the settlements. Amana, which Hever heads, is a cooperative association whose activities are not public and to which taxes paid by residents of the settlements are transferred.

The movement’s activities are mainly carried out through a subsidiary, Binyanei Bar Amana Ltd., which in practice constructs the settlement homes in the West Bank. Another company owned by Amana, Al-Watan, is registered in the West Bank and deals with the acquisition of land from Palestinians.

A police fraud unit probe conducted in recent years (and which is still ongoing) found that 14 of the 15 real-estate transactions carried out by the company in outposts slated for evacuation were forged. While this was happening, Hever was operating FNZI.

In 2014, before the registrar of nonprofits began examining the organization, Hever – along with Amana’s treasurer, Moshe Yogev, and another person affiliated with Amana by the name of Chaim Fogel – served as the nonprofit’s management committee. The “control committee” of the nonprofit was headed by Leah Sharabi, Amana’s bookkeeping manager.

Binyanei Bar Amana, the Amana movement and FNZI all operate from the same address: 5 Paran Street, Jerusalem. The operations at the office – which is on the outskirts of the commercial center in East Jerusalem’s Ramat Eshkol neighborhood – convey a sense of urgency and activity. 

The staff is almost entirely religious. The women have head coverings and the men wear skullcaps and sandals. The walls are adorned with aerial photographs of various settlements, while the offices contain masses of thick binders sporting the names of West Bank settlements.

Hever is connected to all of the entities, whether as CEO or as board member, with trusted financial aide Yogev at his side. Someone who sought information about the activities of the fund was referred by the secretary to “the bosses” – referring to Hever and Yogev. They’re the brains behind the fundraising for the settlement enterprise, and only the two of them know the minor details of Amana’s financial situation.

It’s not just bank accounts. The two men are no strangers to interrogation rooms, and are currently under investigation from the police fraud unit on suspicion that they took a commission for “writing off a debt” from the Central Company for the Development of Samaria to the Finance Ministry.

Millions of shekels, zero employees

FNZI was established in 1978 and initially served as a subsidiary nonprofit of the Yesha Council of settlements. In the past, figures such as current Agriculture and Rural Development Minister Uri Ariel (Habayit Hayehudi) and former Yesha Council chairmen Uri Elitzur and Pinchas Wallerstein were associated with it. Over the years, though, most of its members resigned and Hever has remained, alone.

When the fund was set up, it was registered to assist in the establishment of educational and religious institutions in the territories. Indeed, for years it provided funding for the construction of mikvehs (Jewish ritual baths), synagogues and other religious buildings in the settlements. In addition, though, it also financed illegal construction in the Migron outpost; following a complaint by the Peace Now organization, in 2009, the registrar of nonprofits ordered it to cease.

The millions flowing into FNZI might create the (mistaken) impression of an active entity. But in practice, it has no employees and clearly serves as an intermediary between donors and the entities that receive their support.

Those benefitting from the fund in recent years include Jerusalem’s Har Hamor yeshiva, which received a donation of 5.5 million shekels ($1.4 million) for its new campus. Another smaller contribution was provided to army preparatory programs such as Bnei David in the settlement of Eli, and Hemdat Yehuda in the Jordan Valley; the Ateret Yerushalayim yeshiva in Jerusalem’s Old City; the Nonprofit Organization for the Advancement and Development of Itamar; the Regavim nonprofit; and Hare’ut – whose staff includes Hever’s wife, Rivka, and which conducts tours in the territories for pre-army preparatory courses.

The flow of contributions to FNZI has fluctuated over the decades. For example, in 2000 there were 4 million shekels in donations, but by 2006 that figure had dropped to 870,000 shekels. Then the organization’s control committee warned that an effort had to be made to fundraise, and by 2010 the figure had jumped to 6.5 million shekels.

During the same period, a new player entered the picture and immeasurably improved the situation at the organization: Fundacion Adar. If in 2011 – the first year of its involvement – the contribution of Adar was still negligible, by 2012 Hever’s nonprofit had reported that Adar had contributed 6.5 million shekels. A year later, that figure had increased to 8.5 million shekels, and by 2014 it had reached about 28 million shekels – an astonishing sum when it comes to nonprofits of this nature. 

In 2015, after the investigation by the registrar of nonprofits has started, there is no record of a transfer of funds at all.

What is Fundacion Adar? The registrar of nonprofits hasn’t managed to find out in a year and a half. But the Haaretz investigation has found that, despite its misleading name, Fundacion Adar is actually a company that was registered in 2004 in Panama, a known tax haven. Companies registered there can hide behind law offices that serve as “registration agents” for the companies. 

In the huge recent leak of documents from the Mossack Fonseca law firm (aka the Panama Papers), there is no mention of Fundacion Adar. But company registration documents obtained by Haaretz state that the owner of the company is “Señor Marynberg.”

Some of the reports from FNZI refer to Fundacion Adar being located at 41 Schermerhorn Street in Brooklyn. Haaretz has visited the address twice in recent years. It’s a typical red-brick New York residential building. The ground floor has a privately owned postal agency, owned by an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man who rents out post-office boxes to anyone needing one.

A pleasant young man chuckled when it was explained we had come looking for Fundacion Adar. We were confused, he said, smiling, adding that they were far away in Argentina. If this was indeed the case, this fundacion – which transfers tens of millions of shekels to the Holy Land – is a little post-office box in Downtown Brooklyn.

Bundle of cash

Even though the data shows an increase in the cash flow to FNZI from the beginning of the current decade, there has been no substantial expansion of its activities.

In 2013, for example, 20.4 million shekels was disbursed from its account, and the organization finished the year with a surplus of 17 million shekels. In 2014, even more was disbursed – 32 million shekels – but that year, too, the organization was left with a bundle of cash at year’s end: 14.7 million shekels.

In recent years – following a series of new legal directives by the state relating to the funding of construction in settlement outposts – the Amana movement had fallen on hard times. A large number of projects that were stalled by petitions to the High Court of Justice had left Amana with construction expenses, but no income from the sale of properties. As a result, its liquid capital dwindled and it ran into difficulty raising the capital needed to enable it to obtain bank credit to continue carrying out its operations.

At that point, Fundacion Adar and FNZI were pressed to come to Amana’s assistance. A Haaretz investigation reveals that, contrary to Justice Ministry regulations – which are based on the legislation governing nonprofits, and which bar the transfer of funds to entities that aren’t not-for-profit institutions – the money was transferred from the nonprofit to Binyanei Bar Amana and Amana in “circular” transfers: In 2013 and 2014, after Fundacion Adar transferred tens of millions of shekels to FNZI, the latter in turn transferred about 40 million shekels to Amana and its extensions. Then FNZI got back some 14 million shekels, mostly from Amana. Where did the 26 million shekels go? The registrar is still checking.

The law provides that nonprofit organizations are legal entities with no owner, and its members are to act to carry out its aims.

The fact that Hever and Yogev are the directors of Amana and also FNZI means that they are not allowed to transfer funds to Amana. On the contrary, they need to be particularly cautious in managing the funds of the entities connected to one another.

Nonprofit organizations are obligated to report on all of their operations. But in practice, the transfers of funds between the nonprofit and Amana were not included in the financial reports that the fund submitted to the registrar of nonprofits over the years.

When Haaretz began receiving more and more information about alleged transfers of funds between the nonprofit and various entities, it contacted the registrar of nonprofits in October 2014.

When asked how he was permitting Amana to receive money from a mysterious entity and transfer it to other entities, without it being recorded, the registrar opened an inquiry that concluded just last month.

The registrar’s report – a short, four-page document – showed that small donations that came to the nonprofit in cash over the years were put into the bank account of Binyanei Bar Amana, a limited liability corporation. From time to time, the corporation returns portions of the money to the nonprofit.

According to the document’s figures, which the registrar received from the nonprofit itself, only 166,000 shekels over a period of four years was involved. It appears, however, that the offices of the registrar of nonprofit organizations were satisfied with this response and didn’t check the nonprofit’s bank accounts, which document the transfers in real time. Somehow, the registrar of nonprofits sufficed with ordering the nonprofit to cease making transfers to the company.

With regard to the tens of millions transferred from the nonprofit and back, Hever and Yogev had another explanation. In his report, the registrar wrote: “The nonprofit received a donation from Fundacion Adar and approval from a representative of the fund to provide a loan from the donation proceeds to the cooperative association [Amana].”

The registrar also wrote that, based on a demand from the donor, Amana was to repay the loan that same year. But there is nothing in the nonprofit’s financial reports to document that this was actually done. 

“The loan serves as collateral from Amana to obtain the loans from the bank,” the registrar added. According to his report, the loan was provided without an interest rate stated, without approval from the nonprofit’s committee and without collateral for its repayment – contrary to what is required. The documents don’t show that the money was returned. In 2014, for instance, FNZI transferred 27 million shekels to Amana, and got back only 7 million shekels.

With regard to Hever and Yogev’s connection to other entities, the registrar notes FNZI’s claims that “it does not belong to any entity, including the Amana movement.” This, however, is despite the fact that these are two entities run by the same people, and even located at the same address. For the avoidance of doubt, the registrar added that the relations among the parties will be “thoroughly examined.”

This particular inquiry, which opened in March, is being conducted by an accountant and may take several years.

The superficiality of the inquiry (so far) can be seen from one particular matter that the registrar examined regarding FNZI. After the registrar received a complaint, the nonprofit was asked why it was transferring funds to another nonprofit, Im Tirtzu. 

Sources at FNZI said it was not transferring funds to Im Tirtzu; instead, the two had a joint initiative. Yet in Im Tirtzu’s 2013 financial report, it stated that it received 200,000 shekels from FNZI.
The registrar acknowledges that the statement and financial report are in conflict, adding that “it will be thoroughly examined.”

The Panama connection

Other than the address of the red-brick building in Brooklyn, FNZI furnished no other details regarding Fundacion Adar in the reports it filed with the registrar of nonprofits. Incidentally, with regard to the transfers of funds to FNZI’s bank account, a different name – Adar Latam Hi – appears. However, the people at the nonprofit informed the registrar that they had never heard of the name “Latam.”

In the course of the registrar’s inquiry, the nonprofit’s representatives claimed that Fundacion Adar is a company from Panama that is represented by a man named Rafi Ben Bassat. As for the Brooklyn address, it was argued that the address of the bank to which the money was sent – from one of his accounts – was used in error. The registrar did not confront FNZI with the fact that the address is of a residential building and not a bank branch.

Ben Bassat, whom the nonprofit claims represents Fundacion Adar, is a long-time public figure in the settler community – a resident of Neveh Tzuf (aka Halamish) who’s close to the older generation of the settlement establishment. He’s a former deputy head of the Mateh Binyamin regional council and Yesha Council activist who was recently hired by the Elad nonprofit and the administration of Tnufa – the agency dealing with the resettlement of former residents of Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip. He was also once an emissary to a Zionist organization in Argentina, and since then has been connected to its local Jewish elite.

The registrar of nonprofits noted in his report that he received a legal opinion from the nonprofit itself regarding the identity of Fundacion Adar, with documents from the company in Panama, and therefore decided not to continue looking into the issue of its ownership.

In response to this article, Amana stated: “Amana and the Fund for Nurturing the Zionist Idea have acted, and still act, in accordance with the law and the instructions of the authorities, including instructions from the registrar of nonprofit organizations.

“Very unfortunately, the thrust of the factual basis on which Haaretz's inquiry is based is untrue or distorted.

“The registrar of nonprofit organizations did conduct an investigation into the Fund for Nurturing the Zionist Idea, asked many questions and was given full and detailed responses. A large proportion of the answers and explanations were accepted; in a minority of the cases, comments were made about issues that needed rectifying. And in fact, the nonprofit made and is making all of the changes that the registrar demanded.”

The fund added: “Since the start of this year, there has been a complete severing of ties between the Fund for Nurturing the Zionist Idea and the Amana movement, including a severing of ties between the people managing the two entities. 

“In conclusion, Amana and the nonprofit will continue working in accordance with the law and in accordance with any legally authorized body.”

Marynberg and Ben Bassat did not respond to calls when contacted by Haaretz about this article.

The Office of the Registrar of Nonprofit Organizations stated in response that following claims regarding improper conduct by FNZI, “The registrar demanded a large number of documents and written support from the nonprofit, which he carefully examined. Based on the documents and in the absence of contradictory written support, the registrar put together the examination report of May 31. Concurrent with this examination and following its findings, it was decided to open an additional in-depth audit regarding the nonprofit.”

With regard to the transfer of funds between FNZI and the Amana movement, the registrar noted: “While documents and explanations were received on behalf of the nonprofit, the registrar did not receive written support confirming the claims against it.”

In response to the claim that money was transferred to the nonprofit from an entity called Adar Latam Hi, the registrar replied: “The nonprofit produced written support showing that the money was transferred from another entity with a similar name, ‘Adar Foundation,’” and added, “No basis has been found for concern over tax offenses and, therefore, no basis has been found for passing the information on to the Tax Authority.”

The statement concluded: “The registrar is unaware of claims regarding connections of the control committee [Leah Sharabi – CL/UB] to other entities.

International man of mystery

Diego Adolfo Marynberg (who occasionally goes by Ze’ev) is an elusive figure – and not only because he failed to respond to a number of requests for this story. On the one hand, he is a 41-year-old businessman who was born in Argentina and made his money in Latin American countries that are controlled by people clearly associated with the left wing. Media reports in Argentina have stated that he benefits from connections with leading politicians from these countries.

And on the other hand, the amounts that he has directed to the settlement enterprise are exceptional in scope, particularly in such a short time, and are reminiscent of donors of mythical proportions such as the late pro-settlement, U.S. philanthropist Irving Moskowitz.

The Fund for Nurturing the Zionist Idea (FNZI) is not the only right-wing beneficiary of Marynberg’s largesse in Israel. Fundacion Adar has also contributed about 13 million shekels in recent years to the Elad settler nonprofit, which works to settle Jews in East Jerusalem; has given more than 3 million shekels to the Nonprofit Organization for the Advancement and Development of the Settlement of Itamar; 9 million shekels to the Lev Institute in Jerusalem; and hundreds of thousands of shekels to Regavim – a nonprofit cofounded in 2006 by MK Bezalel Smotrich (Habayit Hayehudi) – which works to gain Jewish control over land and against illegal Palestinian construction in Israel and the West Bank.

Unlike other donors, however, Marynberg’s name is not well-known among the right-wing public or settlers, and is not featured on buildings constructed with his help.

An investigation by Haaretz reveals that Marynberg studied for bachelor’s degrees in economics and accounting at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, and over the years became a donor to the university in Ramat Gan and a member of its board of trustees.

This week, Israeli business daily Calcalist reported that Marynberg is trying to become established in Israel and has been negotiating to buy the real-estate company Gan Ha’ir from Israeli businessman Shlomo Eliahu. The firm has prestigious properties in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

As part of the negotiations, he has also met with officials from Bank Leumi and Bank Hapoalim, to which the company owes hundreds of millions of shekels. A well-connected right-wing figure recounts that Marynberg began circulating in Israel in recent years.

“For a certain period, he was with [Jerusalem Mayor Nir] Barkat, but they quarreled. He’s a short guy, doesn’t talk a lot, very ideological in his support of the right wing,” the source said, adding, “Ben Bassat totally controls Marynberg. Even though [Marynberg] is young, he’s a billionaire. He has huge sums.” (Sources at FNZI claimed that Ben Bassat is a representative of Fundacion Adar.)

The tycoon, who now works out of New York, has been featured in various reports over the years – either on Argentinian websites or media outlets such as Bloomberg. But compared to the size of his businesses, the media attention he’s received is relatively minor.

His picture doesn’t appear on the internet and his presence in the social or business networks is minimal. The profile on his Facebook page, which doesn’t appear to be active, only shows two friends: One of them is Eli Meir Libersohn, an Argentinian rabbi who didn’t respond to Haaretz’s interview requests. Another rabbi by the name of Yoel Antebi, who is in Argentina on behalf of the Chief Rabbinate, said he has heard Marynberg’s name and has also seen him, but doesn’t know him personally.

Over the years, Marynberg has been associated with being either an owner or director of a large number of companies in a number of countries – from Argentina to the United States, and including the offshore tax havens Panama and the Cayman Islands.

Many of the companies use the same three names: Latam, Adar and Mercantil.

In his native Argentina, records exist for two companies Marynberg founded back in 1998: Pinfruta S.A. and Clover Consulting S.A. His wife, Elena Szpolski – a woman from a well-established family – was a partner in the latter.

Currently, the company that appears to be particularly active in Marynberg’s network of businesses is an American brokerage firm called Latam Securities, which was registered in Delaware in 2013. Its name was recently changed to Zebed Securities.

Its offices are on the second floor of a high-rise building south of Central Park. The building’s second floor was purchased in 2014 by a New York company called Latam Properties LLC, for $14 million.

The company’s LinkedIn page states: “LATAM’s mission is to provide clients, who are high-net-worth individuals, families, trusts, foundations and endowments, with strategic investment opportunities to help them meet their goals through investments mostly in Latin America.” It is also stated that the company is “a fully owned subsidiary of Mercantil Financial Services” and has “over 20 years of experience in investment banking” in the Latin American market.

In Latam’s last report to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in 2015, its assets and capital were listed as being a little more than $6 million.

Starting in 2006, Marynberg has been mentioned in various reports in connection with his business dealings in Venezuela, under the leadership of the late President Hugo Chavez. Among other items, the local media reported that Marynberg was an intermediary between Venezuela and the international investment firm Goldman Sachs regarding the sale of gold through a company called Adar Capital Partners, which was registered in the Cayman Islands and appears to have received millions of dollars in commissions.

In recent years, Marynberg’s name also came up as allegedly being involved in a case to which Argentina’s then-economy minister, Axel Kicillof, was also linked. According to various reports – primarily on Argentinian websites, as well as documents filed in a New York court as part of legal proceedings filed against the Argentinian government – it was claimed that Latam Securities (owned by Marynberg) received preferential treatment in acquiring Argentinian bonds thanks to the owner’s connections with Kicillof.

Jonathan Shepland, whose name appears as director of Zebed Securities, said in a telephone conversation to Haaretz in mid-June that Marynberg was “on the road.” Latam, he said, had changed its name as part of an ongoing rebranding process. He claimed he was not familiar with an entity known as Fundacion Adar. When asked how it was that a successful brokerage firm didn’t have an active website, Shepland replied that a new site is currently under construction.

The Latam Securities domain name is registered to a lawyer by the name of Robin Powers. She’s a partner in the Rimon firm, which is located in New York and deals with investments and venture capital funds. In a conversation with Haaretz, Powers said Marynberg is a client of hers and that she cannot answer questions on his behalf.

Reporting for this story was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

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