After the dreariness forced upon the city of Marrakesh by the COVID pandemic, the colorful Moroccan city at the foot of the Atlas Mountains sprang to life three weeks ago with a “fairy-tale” wedding, as the local media described it.
No fewer than 500 guests were invited to the mega-party, ferried in by jets landing one after the other from France, the United States and Israel. Three hotels were set aside for the foreign invitees. The hosts spared no expense.
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Traditional music and candles illuminating lawns in soft light greeted the multitudes; a double line of lights on the floor showed them the way, once inside. At the end a beautiful white bridal canopy awaited, weighted down with over-the-top floral arrangements.
It’s not every day that a Jewish wedding takes place in Marrakesh. Not every day is the father of the bride a well-connected businessman, the son of a local Jewish diamond merchant, famous for his ties to the country's royal court – but not only there.
Yariv Elbaz strutted around at his daughter’s wedding as if it were his own. His global business connections have bought him many famous acquaintances, with some of whom he exchanged confidences with a big smile.
The billionaire's close friend Jared Kushner, son-in-law of former U.S. President Donald Trump, couldn’t make it to the nuptials, but he sent his political adviser, Avi Berkowitz, who was seen mingling with the guests.
A small but respectable delegation came from Israel. At its head was Elbaz’s associate and representative in Israel, Col. (res.) Yossi Lahmani, CEO of the Yitzhak Rabin Center (and brother of Moshe Lahmani, former chairman of the Shikun & Binui construction company). At his side was Yesh Atid MK and former deputy chief of the Mossad, Ram Ben-Barak.
In addition to his post at the Rabin center, a research facility named after the slain Israeli prime minister, Lahmani owns a firm dealing in security-related “projects” called Fortify Solutions. In the past the firm’s frontman was former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. Eventually Ben-Barak filled the post – during the interim between his departure from the Mossad and his entry into the Knesset.
A close friendship developed between Ben-Barak and Elbaz. Together they made history when helping to secretly cobble together the normalization agreement between Israel and Morocco in late 2020. And as is the way with behind-the-scenes actors, at the last moment before the signing ceremonies in Rabat they took a step back and allowed Meir Ben-Shabbat, head of the Defense Ministry’s security department (and a confidant of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) to enjoy the limelight.
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And so, while Ben-Shabbat impressed everyone with his perfect Moroccan Arabic, and was thrilled to take credit, the figures in the shadows had time to conduct business – first and foremost, involving energy, security and cyber deals (defense-related ones, of course).
“We already have an indication that Morocco’s level in the field isn’t all that bad. They are no chumps when it comes to cyber. We have an interest in standing with them,” a senior member of the government told TheMarker’s Hagai Amit a few months ago. And indeed, a few days after the signing of the normalization accord with Morocco last December, it became clear what was meant by “no chumps.”
An investigative report by the French newspaper Le Monde revealed that one of the phone numbers used by French President Emmanuel Macron had been targeted for surveillance by the Moroccan intelligence service, which had used the Israeli firm NSO’s Pegasus spyware – the program with which Netanyahu’s administration garnered support from Arab countries.
In France, they went crazy, and banned any official meetings between French representatives and their Israeli counterparts until this past week. Then, at the global climate conference in Glasgow, Macron met with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett for a private conversation, things were straightened out and the ban on Israel was lifted. But then last Friday the United States announced that NSO would be placed on the Entity List – a blacklist for firms involved in malicious cyber activity – and apparently turned out the lights at NSO.
It seems that the “peace” agreements in the Middle East extract a cost.
Dividends for Elbaz
Intoxicated by his historic contribution to the bilateral agreement with Morocco, Elbaz didn’t wait long before beginning to demand a dividend.
Rewind to September 18, 2020: A new company was registered in the tax haven of Gibraltar called Lubber Line Capital (which specializes in investment in infrastructure and energy projects around the world) of which Line Holdings Ltd. is the registered owner. The latter is a holdings group that starred in the leaked Panama Documents – and whose name has been associated with Elbaz.
About a month later it was revealed that Lubber Line would serve as a go-between in transporting Emirati oil through Israel to Europe. The Israeli Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline Company reported at the time that it had signed an agreement to move oil from Abu Dhabi through its terminuses in Eilat and Ashkelon. But according to that announcement, the deal, worth somewhere in the realm of hundreds of millions of dollars, would not be made directly with the Emirates, but rather through an intermediary company that would buy the oil and sign off on its transfer through the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline Company.
Three people would reap the hefty benefits here. On the Israeli side, former senior executives of the Paz Oil Company Yona Fogel and Malachi Alper, who employed Lahmani, Elbaz’s representative, as an adviser to their company; an Emirati company (because in every sale of oil or gas in the Middle East there will always be an interested party from the ruling family); and yes, Lubber Line, belonging to Elbaz, who put the whole deal together.
And so it was that this jolly group boarded a plane from Israel to Abu Dhabi in late October 2020, to sign the contract discretely, behind the backs of the regulators in Israel – lest they block it, perish the thought, due to considerations of security or the environment.
Also, on that same flight, by the way, was Dalia Rabin, head of the Yitzhak Rabin Center, accompanied by her son, Yonatan Ben-Artzi. And so, in one hall in Abu Dhabi an oil agreement was signed, mediated by Elbaz and Lahmani, CEO of the center. And in the next hall, a joint philanthropic accord was signed between the center and the investment fund of Sheikh Ahmed bin Zayed al Nahyan (the brother of Abu Dhabi’s ruler).
All these agreements were presided over by Trump’s representative to the exciting event, the former secretary of the U.S. Treasury, Steven Mnuchin. At a dinner attended by everyone involved, Mnuchin (who was later scolded by Dalia Rabin because he did not mention her father’s contribution to the process) gushed about peace.
The accords were inked, the deals blossomed. The Red Sea in Eilat had already welcomed the first Emirati oil tanker. Elbaz and Lahmani became sought-after players by all the security-related firms interested in selling weapons to Morocco. And this past August, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid made a first historic visit to Morocco, joined, of course, by his party colleague and fellow lawmaker Ben-Barak.
But this time, the former Mossad deputy didn’t land there wearing the hat of the shadowy company dealing in “security projects” but rather as the chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Among other things, that panel monitors the confidentiality that the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline Company deal enjoys – the order that allows the company to protect itself from the troubles it would endure should it be required to be transparent and supervised.
Ben-Barak did not sign an arrangement governing conflict of interests when he entered the Knesset.
A few days ago he told TheMarker that to prevent even the slightest appearance of such a conflict, he would not take part in the committee’s discussions on the Eilat Ashkelon oil pipeline, if there are any. But the problem is not Ben-Barak, it’s the climate.
And it's not the pleasant green climate of Glasgow, but the hot cloudy one in the Middle East. A climate in which every peace treaty comes with a fine package of Pegasus spyware and an F-35 aircraft. It’s a climate in which the Yitzhak Rabin brand provides inspiration for the movement of 14 million tons of oil a year over the rare and beautiful coral reefs of Eilat. It’s a climate where government, money and peace are mixed, in which every international conference necessarily bodes ill.