Inside the Secret Israeli Bank Accounts in Switzerland

TV star Erez Tal and a bevy of business leaders have been linked to accounts at HSBC Geneva that reached the millions .

Daniel Tchetchik

Bankers, businessmen and a television star are among the 6,500 Israelis found to be holding secret bank accounts at the HSBC Bank Geneva private banking branch between 1988 and 2007.

The list of Israelis obtained by TheMarker was part of a worldwide investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists completed earlier this month and published by Haaretz on February 9. The list showed that Israelis – that is, individuals who identified themselves with an Israeli passport, were born in Israel or gave an address in Israel – held about $10 billion in 6,200 accounts in 2006 and 2007, which made them the sixth largest group based on nationality.

It is important to note that holding an account in a foreign bank is not illegal under Israeli law, so long as any interest or other income on it is reported to the Income Tax Authority and taxes due are paid.

The complete list, part of which is published here, also includes diamond dealers whose businesses span the world, people from the real estate and capital market sectors, soccer stars, sports agents, a district court judge, a retired prominent attorney, former army officers, doctors, media people and many more.

Here is a partial list:

Several members of the Livnat family, one of the wealthiest in Israel, were connected to accounts at HSBC. Avraham (Bondi), Zvi, Rachel, Shay and Zeev Livnat are all mentioned in the HSBC listings as connected to accounts in which there was about $400,000 in 2007. Family members are mentioned as connected to two numbered accounts opened in 1990 and 1991. Avraham Livnat founded Taavura Holdings in 1955, which has since become the largest trucking and logistics company in Israel. The Livnat family responded that it reported all the accounts to the tax authorities during the years in question and that they have since been closed.

Yair Seroussi, chairman of the board of Bank Hapoalim since 2009, who served as chairman of the Mivtachim Pension Fund from 2003 until his appointment at Bank Hapoalim, appears in the HSBC records as being connected to an account that in 2007 had a balance of nearly a quarter of a million dollars.

Initially, Seroussi informed Haaretz via Bank Hapoalim spokeswoman Ofra Preuss that he had no bank accounts abroad and that he never acted through powers of attorney. “All my income and accounts have been reported to the authorities,” he added. Asked about the nature of the accounts that appear in the HSBC records from 2007, Preuss said, “Seroussi had an account at HSBC in Switzerland that was closed. The income from the account was reported to the Income Tax Authority and taxes on them were paid in Israel.”

In addition to the private account, Seroussi’s name is also associated with an account that was opened at the end of 1994 for a company established in Liberia called New Middle East Development Company. Seroussi has not responded to questions about this account, which has also been closed.

Israeli businesswoman Emilia Mosseri, who is also connected to the account, said in a telephone conversation that in those years following the signing of the Oslo Accords and hopes that Israel would begin doing business with the Arab world, the account was created to advance joint Israeli-Egyptian ventures. “For political reasons,” she explained, “we needed to set up the company far from here. Liberia was an inexpensive place.”

Seroussi, who was with the financial services company Morgan Stanley in Israel during that period, was connected to the project. Mosseri said the hoped-for business never developed and the company was closed.

Mivtach Shamir Holdings, the publicly traded company controlled by businessman Meir Shamir, and which has been in negotiations to sell China’s Bright Food its 21 percent stake in the dairy company Tnuva, had more than $3 million in the HSBC branch in Switzerland. .

The Mivtach Shamir account in Geneva, which was opened in July 2005, is connected to Meir Shamir and Limor Avidor, the company’s deputy CEO. The account is not mentioned in Mivtach Shamir’s financial reports.

In response to questions, Avidor informed Haaretz that the account is still active. “The company opened the account to manage its investments in hedge funds that operate abroad. All of the company’s accounts, including this one, are reported to the Income Tax Authority as required by law. The payee of the account is the company itself,” she said.

Asked why the accounts are not mentioned in Mivtach Shamir’s financial reports, Avidor noted that companies do not ordinarily break out what money they are holding on an account-by-account basis. “These balances, insofar as they exist, appear in the balance on a cumulative basis under the heading of cash and cash equivalents and in liquid financial assets,” she explained.

In the account of Keter Plastic controlling shareholder Sami Sagol and his wife Tova held about a quarter of a million dollars in 2007, but in correspondence about him, HSBC said Sagol had “great potential” and that over time he would be transferring millions into the account.

On Sagol’s behalf, Haaretz has been informed: “Sami Sagol’s account in question, like all his accounts, are reported regularly in his annual managing his [Sagol’s] personal portfolio.”

The names of Barak Rosen and Assaf Tuchmayer, who own the closely held Canada-Israel Company and are its CEO and chairman, respectively, appear as owners of accounts at the bank both together and separately.

In 2007 the two were listed at the bank as payees of an account with more than $3 million belonging to a company called Sunhill International Limited, registered in the British Virgin Islands. Tuchmayer is linked to an account amounting to about $1.3 million in the name of Reed Estates, also registered in the Virgin Islands, and Rosen is linked to yet another Virgin Islands account called Classic Estates, with a balance of about $1.2 million. The two did not respond to queries on the matter.

Erez Tal's millions

Television star Erez Tal’s name also gets top billing alongside names of Israel bank directors, diamond dealers, capital market people, owners of public companies and high-tech success stories whom TheMarker has revealed to have held bank accounts in Switzerland.

From the secret list of account holders in the Geneva branch of the HSBC Bank obtained by TheMarker, it emerges that in 2007 Tal’s name was associated with a number of accounts in which a total of about $7 million was deposited.

Tal, a television, radio and entertainment personality who in recent years was the presenter for Bank Hapoalim, is responsible for the development of successful television programs that have been sold to dozens of television stations around the world. The names of some of the programs – “The Million Pound Drop,” “The Vault” and “Only in Israel” – appear to be connected to his bank account in Geneva.

The records show that of the $7 million to which Tal’s name is connected, he was the payee of some of the accounts while others were registered to his media companies, among them Erez Tal Communications and Erez Tal Investments. His name is also connected in the bank’s records to a trust called Ribbon International Investments registered in the Virgin Islands. According to the bank documents, some of the accounts in Tal’s name were closed by 2007.

Tal told Haaretz in response: “All my income and all my bank accounts everywhere in Israel and abroad have always been reported according to law to the tax authorities in Israel, who incidentally are the only ones to whom I owe an accounting, but since you’ve already asked, I am answering. My earnings have never been only those of a talent who is a moderator on television. In fact, I have a ‘talent contract’ with (Channel 2 franchisee) Keshet only since 2006.

“As you may remember I am one of those responsible for the format of ‘The Vault,’ one of the bestselling Israeli television formats worldwide. In addition, at various times I owned three production companies that had a substantial amount of production activity – both of my shows and of other people’s shows, I was a partner in a radio station and I sold my share in it in the end and I had good income from successful investments, various (advertising) campaigns and more.

“Still, the amounts you have cited are very exaggerated, but who’s counting In any case, in everything I’ve done I have earned my money honestly, I have reported it as required by law to the tax authorities and I have paid all the taxes the law requires down to the last shekel.

“I opened the account at HSBC 14 years ago, when earnings from ‘The Vault’ started to come in from abroad. This bank managed to give me some bad advice, like inducing me to set up an unnecessary company in the Virgin Islands that closed two years later (all the data were reported to the tax authorities in real time), or to invest in [Bernard] Madoff’s funds and they had the gall to pile on difficulties when I tried to take my money out of there. In the end my investments moved out of there and they are now in the most natural place for them – Bank Hapoalim.

“And on a personal note ,” adds Tal, “my parents were government employees who lived on and raised us on quite a basic salary yet they made sure to educate us towards achievement and excellence, but with honesty. If these data have already been revealed I am proud to say that that’s how I have conducted myself.”