Putin's Pet Oligarch Roman Abramovich Is Now Israel's Richest Man. But Is He Worthy of Citizenship?

Its founders didn't declare in 1948 that, 'The State of Israel is open for the ingathering of exiles and exiled murky money tax-evaders and sex offenders.' But that's what the Law of Return has facilitated

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Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich attends the World Cup 2010 qualifying soccer match between Finland and Russia at the Olympic Stadium in Helsinki. June 10, 2009
Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich attends the World Cup 2010 qualifying soccer match between Finland and Russia at the Olympic Stadium in Helsinki. June 10, 2009Credit: REUTERS
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

At the entrance to the Marina Rosha synagogue inside the opulent Chabad Center in Moscow, the largest plaque commemorates one of the center’s benefactors: "Reb Aharon Abramovich" and his family. Visiting there ten years ago, I asked who the generous Reb Aharon was, only to be answered with laughter.

I should have guessed Aharon was the "Jewish name" of the most famous oligarch in Russia. But despite all I knew about the way Chabad had ruthlessly inserted itself in to the circles of power and money in Putin’s Russia, there was still something incongruous about seeing the name of Roman Abramovich in a house of prayer.

And as of this week, Abramovich is a freshly-minted Israeli citizen. That is if we are to believe that he hadn’t secretly obtained citizenship already years ago, as a rainy-day insurance policy.

Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich's 170-metre-long $540 million superyacht 'Eclipse' leaving its Hamburg shipyard in Hamburg. April 16, 2010Credit: REUTERS

The arrival on Monday of this new Israeli at Ben Gurion Airport, the place which has seen millions of new immigrants disembarking in the Promised Land, was unlike any other in the annals of aliyah.

The Jewish Agency offers to pay for the ticket of every new oleh, but that probably didn’t cover the cost of refreshments during Abramovich’s flight on his private Gulfstream G650 business jet. Though you have to appreciate his humility, arriving in one of his smaller planes, not in either of the Boeing airliners in his fleet. Wouldn’t it have been romantic though if in a reenactment of the early Zionist pioneers, he had docked at Tel Aviv Marina in his 533-foot mega-yacht Eclipse?

You wonder whether the Immigration Absorption Ministry officials who handed him his new identity document, also gave the man who according to Forbes has $10.5 billion, the standard 1,350 shekels in cash every new immigrant receives upon arrival.

And did they inform him of the rental assistance he’s eligible for, since the Versano Hotel in Tel Aviv’s Neve Tzedek neighborhood he bought for 100 million shekels three years, is still undergoing renovations.

They probably didn’t bother to sign him up with a health fund, after all, he just gave Sheba Medical Center’s research department 20 million dollars for a particle accelerator. So he’s probably sorted health-wise.

But excuse all this churlish anti-rich bitterness. Abramovich has as much right as any other Jew to make aliyah. And his motives for doing so at this particular moment need not be any more noble than those of any other oleh. Even before becoming the richest man in Israel, Abramovich had invested millions in Israeli start-ups and given large sums to local charities.

Surely this is the productive type of immigrant Israel should be attracting? One who brings in wealth, rather than moving here for the free healthcare and automatic benefits?

But Abramovich is no ordinary businessman. After all, how many billionaires have been called by Vladimir Putin "our oligarch"?

Roman Abramovich in 2002 on the Chukotka peninsula in the Russian Far East,where he served as regional governor for several years after being proposed for the post by Russian President Vladimir PutinCredit: AP

Some in the Russian-speaking community object to the way the media sticks the label "oligarch" on any successful businessman to emerge from the former Soviet Union. Yet another example of Russophobia! they cry.

But the fact remains that to have made billions from snapping up crumbling state industries for a song in the wild days of the new Russia; and then to hold on to those riches in Putin’s plutocracy, took a degree of skullduggery and political maneuvering not taught in any business school.

Is that any of our business? That depends which government you ask.

After over two decades of London serving as the oligarchs’ playground, the British government is belatedly starting to ask some awkward questions in the wake of the attempted murder of double-agent Sergey Skripal, and other suspicious Kremlin-connected deaths on its soil. For the first time, those who hold Tier-1 "investor visas" to the United Kingdom are being asked for some more specific details regarding the originals of their wealth.

Bad luck for Abramovich whose old visa expired just three weeks before Chelsea, the football club he bought in 2003 and on which he has since lavished untold riches, played Manchester United in the FA Cup final at Wembley Stadium. Abramovich’s absence from the VIP box was noted. Nine days later he became an Israeli.

Surely for a man of his resources, supplying the British authorities with a full report of his assets should not be a problem. He must have an army of accountants at his disposal. But that may not be so simple.

The last time Abramovich claimed full disclosure was in 2011 when in compliance with Russia’s then-President Dimitry Medvedev’s "anti-corruption" campaign, he supplied a report. It included in addition to an inventory of palatial homes in Russia, Britain and France, a few fancy cars and yachts, and just $130 million in cash and shares. Enough for you and me to retire on quite comfortably - but blatantly a tiny fraction of what his empire is worth.

Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich lifts the UEFA Champions League trophy at the Allianz Arena in Munich. May 19, 2012Credit: \ Michaela Rehle/ REUTERS

This may have been good enough for the Russian government, but it certainly won’t be for the British. How fortunate for Abramovich that the Israeli tax authorities, under a law passed in 2007, don’t ask new immigrants questions about their assets and earnings outside the country for the first ten years of their citizenship.

This controversial law, which was later extended to include also "returning" Israelis (the infamous "Milchan Law," which recently came up in the Netanyahu investigations), was ostensibly legislated to encourage aliyah from western countries, has also drawn criticism for being open to abuse and an avenue for money-laundering.

There is no reason to believe that Abramovich is interested in Israeli citizenship for any nefarious tax-evading reasons, but his seemingly lack of eagerness to supply the British government with the necessary details for renewing his visa, raises questions regarding the timing of his sudden aliyah. As does the fact that with his new Israeli passport, he can take advantage of Israelis’ visa-free travel to the European Union (which - for now, at least - still includes Britain).

The very first words in the core passage of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, describing the character of the new state, are: "The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and the Ingathering of the Exiles." On the basis of this, the Knesset passed in 1950 the Law of Return, which quite rightly does not discriminate between paupers and oligarchs.

But while serving as a haven in time of need for every Jew is the sacred mission of the Jewish state, this doesn’t necessarily have to mean automatic citizenship upon arrival. There is nothing in the Declaration of Independence that says the right to reside in Israel must not be subject to an orderly immigration process, including comprehensive financial and criminal background checks.

The Israeli media this week breathlessly reported the arrival of the "richest Israeli," but failed to ask why Israel should be welcoming with open arms a man who can’t even land in Britain to watch his football team play. Nativ, the government agency which apparently processed Abramovich’s immigration request, said in a statement that he "came to the Israeli Embassy in Moscow like anyone else" and "his documents were inspected in accordance with the Law of Return and he was found eligible for immigrant status." In other words, he satisfied them he was Jewish. That’s it.

If should be clear by now that the Law of Return is no longer fit for purpose. It can be too easily abused to transform Israel in to a bolthole for tax-evaders, sex offenders and worse. Roman Abramovich may be eligible for Israeli citizenship, but is he worthy of it?

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