Knesset Panel on Ofer Brothers' Iran Dealings Adjourns After Chair Receives Secret Note

According to the source close to the Ofer family, Israeli officials have been assisted in a number of cases in recent years by the Ofer family's business activities in the Persian Gulf for 'national needs'.

A discussion Tuesday by the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee on the Ofer Brothers' dealings with Iran was halted after 15 minutes because of warnings from the defense establishment that they might damage the State of Israel, an Israeli source close to the Ofer family has told Haaretz.

Committee chairman MK Carmel Shama-Hacohen suddenly adjourned the meeting after being handed a note, the content of which he declined to divulge.

Knesset meeting Ofer brothers
Emil Salman

According to the source close to the Ofer family, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the matter, Israeli officials have been assisted in a number of cases in recent years by the Ofer family's business activities in the Persian Gulf for "national needs."

"It's no secret that the State of Israel sometimes seeks the help of business people," the source said. "Some agree and some don't."

The source said that apparently "someone in the defense establishment woke up and understood that the meeting MK Carmel Shama-Hacohen wanted to hold would have caused damage."

Both the Prime Minister's Bureau and the military censor denied requesting or recommending that Shama-Hacohen adjourn the meeting.

A senior political figure involved in the issue confirmed Tuesday that the Ofer family had assisted Israel on more than one occasion on various matters in the Persian Gulf, not necessarily in Iran.

However, that individual said such assistance in no way justified the sale to an Iranian shipping company of a tanker owned by a company controlled by the Ofer family, and that such a sale contravened international sanctions.

People close to the Ofer family on Tuesday criticized the way Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had publicly related to the matter. They said Netanyahu never denied that Israel had used ships docking in Iran in some way, but he had said only that Israel had not authorized the ships to dock in Iran.

Public discourse over the past few days has focused almost exclusively on the matter of Ofer family vessels docking in Iran, although that does not contravene any sanctions. The Israeli media has paid little attention to the matter of the sale of the tanker to Iran.

But it is because of that sale that the State Department has blacklisted the Ofer Brothers. The Ofer Brothers have now hired a Washington D.C. law firm to approach the State Department about rescinding the ban. The Ofer Brothers' attorneys are expected to say that an innocent mistake by a shipping agent who mediated the sale, and scrutiny of the deal, had not aroused suspicion that the sanctions were being contravened.

Regarding the note that prompted the adjourning of yesterday's committee meeting, Shama-Hacohen would only say that it had "not come from a political or business figure."

Associates of Shama-Hacohen said security concerns were also not behind the adjournment. One associate said that there had been no point to holding the meeting because no representative of the Ofer family had come, nor were representatives of the defense establishment present, or the supervisor of banks, who was abroad.

The fact that the attorney general is to decide in a few days whether to investigate the Ofer Brothers was said to be another reason behind the adjournment.

Sources in the Knesset yesterday accused Shama-Hacohen of creating headlines for himself by suddenly curtailing the meeting in front of television cameras. Shama-Hacohen said he had not even wanted the media present, but the committee members had insisted. "As chairman of the committee, I decide now much screen time I get and who has the right to speak. But I was not willing for a statement by an MK to cause no small amount of damage," he said.

Early yesterday morning, the head of the Knesset Guard, Brig. Gen. Yossi Griff, was apprised of the fact that that no official with information about the security implications of the affair would be at the meeting. In the absence of a person with such secrets, it was decided that in principle there was no impediment to holding the meeting. However, sources in the Knesset said that even after this was made clear, Shama-Hacohen continued to envelope the meeting with an air of mystery.