The Russian-Israeli Billionaires Embroiled in Israel's Latest Corruption Investigation

Worth some $3 billion, ex-con, ex-pediatrician Michael Mirilashvili and his son Yitzhak are two of 14 suspects detained for questioning in the probe of Minister Arye Dery

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It seems that every unfolding political corruption scandal in Israel introduces the country to a new, colorful Jewish billionaire with deep pockets. The latest police investigation focusing on Interior Minister Arye Dery is no exception.

The news broke on Monday that Dery, his wife, Yaffa Dery and no fewer than 14 other suspects had been swept simultaneously into the offices of the police unit 433, known as the "Israeli FBI," and questioned about the Shas party leader’s finances. Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit opened a corruption inquiry against Dery in March 2016, at the end of a probe into the minister’s financial affairs that lasted several months. Specifically, police suspect that corruption played a role in major real-estate purchases by Dery and members of his family. 

Police suspect that funds donated to Mifalot Simha, an educational nonprofit run by Yaffa Dery, were funneled to the Dery family by falsely registering confidants and relatives as employees of the organization. Dery and his wife were questioned on Monday for 11 hours straight.

Sources in law enforcement initially said Dery was suspected of receiving bribes, but a police statement released following the interrogation only mentioned he was suspected of money laundering, fraud, breach of trust, theft by an authorized person, false registration of corporate documents and tax offenses. Police said Yaffa Dery is suspected of the two latter counts.

Arye Dery was convicted of bribery and fraud in 2000 and served 22 months in prison. In 2012, he returned to lead the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.  

Two names that stand out among the 16 people being questioned in the affair are those of Michael (Mikhael) Mirilashvili and his son Yitzhak. Michael Mirilashvili, a 57-year-old Russian-Israeli billionaire and philanthropist, is one of many extremely wealthy Jews with substantive business dealings in Russia and other countries who choose to make their home base in Israel. He has an unusually colorful history. Mirilashvili and his family donate hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to Mifalot Simha and to Yehuda Ya’aleh, a food charity operated by Yaffa Dery.

Yitzhak Mirilashvili, 2015.Credit: Eli Dasa

The dark-haired, blue-eyed Mirilashvili is one of Israel’s wealthiest citizens. In a 2013 survey, Haaretz estimated that he and his son are the sixth richest family in the country, with a net worth of between $2.5 billion and $3 billion. It was in that year that he and his business partner, his son Yitzhak (Slava) Mirilashvili, made headlines with the sale of their 40 percent stake in the Russian social media network VKontakte for $1.12 billion. They own 5.2 percent of the Israeli oil and gas exploration company ILDC Energy. Michael Mirilashvili’s additional business interests in Israel include Kitaim Venture Capital, Hoshen Argaman Diamonds and Water Gen, whose technologies extract potable water from the air.

Yitzhak Mirilashvili, who was also questioned by police, is the owner of Israel's Channel 20, which broadcasts under a license as a Jewish heritage channel, but has plans to set up its own news company with right-wing leanings.

Michael Mirilashvili was born in Georgia in 1960 and moved to St. Petersburg as a teenager, where he studied medicine, specializing in pediatrics, before turning to focus on business in the 1980s. His family’s wealth came from real estate, but he branched out into areas including not only petroleum and diamonds, but also television, new media, renewable energy and pharmaceuticals. Mirilashvili’s extensive holdings in Russia including shopping malls, casinos and other gambling venues. In Israel, he has also invested in several high-tech and agricultural tech companies, promoting them abroad in countries such as India and Vietnam.

In an interview with an Indian newspaper last year, Mirilashvili mentioned his fondness for Bollywood movies — except for one aspect. “I noticed that the rich were always shown as evil people with no morals. It bothers me. And it is not right. Jews embrace rich people and never see them as bad people. We take care of the less fortunate.”

Arye Dery released from Israeli prison in 2002.Credit: Pavel Wolberg

Mirilashvili is also actively involved in Jewish philanthropy. He donates to Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and memorial, and the Zaka emergency response organization. He has donated Torah scrolls to synagogues and to the army through Chabad and other organizations, and has served in senior positions in the Maccabi World Union, the Russian Jewish Congress and the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress.

His life and business career suffered a lengthy interruption when he spent eight years in prison on charges related to the kidnapping of his father. In August 2000, his father, Moshe Mirilashvili, a prominent member of the Jewish community who served as president of the Congress of Georgian Jewry, was kidnapped in broad daylight on a main road in St. Petersburg. He was released just two days later, and a month and a half after the abduction, the bodies of two of the kidnappers were found.

Michael Mirilashvili was arrested and charged with several offenses, including attempted murder. In August 2003, he was convicted of kidnapping and lesser charges but acquitted on the charge of attempted murder, and sentenced to 12 years in prison. The conviction sent "shock waves" through the Russian Jewish community, the Jewish press reported at the time, saying it was widely believed that Mirilashvili was being targeted, either by rival businessmen or by powerful politicians.

Mirilashvili’s legal team fought his sentencing, calling it “enormously unjust” and “enormously severe.” In 2004, Mirilashvili appealed to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, arguing that his rights had been violated and that he did not receive a fair trial. He was vindicated in 2009, when the European court ruled that his conviction and sentencing was unfair. That year he was released from prison and he moved his home base to Israel, where he continued his business activities in Russia and began investing heavily in Israel and elsewhere.

Since his release, Mirilashvili has held an annual party with rabbis and politicians to celebrate his freedom. Attendees this year included Dery, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Environmental Protection and Jerusalem Affairs Minister Zeev Elkin, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and former cabinet ministers Gideon Sa’ar and Ariel Atias.

Mirilashvili's close ties to politicians were also seen in 2010, when businessman Ofer Nimrodi threw Mirilashvili a party for his 50th birthday at his house in Savion – one of Israel's richest communities. Some 350 people attended that party, which was said to have cost some $1 million, including Edelstein, lawmakers Tzachi Hanegbi and Meir Shitrit, as well as former chief rabbi Yona Metzger.

The indictment filed against Metzger alleged that Mirilashvili gave Metzger $250 thousand in for the wedding of the former chief rabbi's son. Mirilashvili wasn't indicted and Metzger was ultimately convicted in a plea bargain and sentenced to 3.5 years in prison.

With reporting by Sharon Pulwer

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