No Narrow Escape This Time?

Ever since Ben Cohen returned to Israel after serving a prison sentence for manslaughter in the United States, police investigators have been struggling to assess the real extent of his activities and, even more so, to find evidence of criminal activity. The gray market's criminals and loan sharks find him intimidating, while officials at the State Prosecutor's Office have defined him as "one of the most dangerous criminals today." Nevertheless, despite being arrested numerous times, he is usually released after several days because of insufficient evidence against him.

This was the case a few moths ago, when Cohen was arrested on suspicion of having been involved in throwing a fragmentation grenade at the Zizi Strip club on Tel Aviv's Carlebach Street, after he had quarreled with the club's owners; the same was true last July, when Cohen was arrested after his name came up in the investigation into the attempt to assassinate Aviel Wahal, a criminal from Herzliya.

But it seems the so-called "Subaru affair" has brought the desired breakthrough. "For years he refrained from getting involved in quarrels, maintaining a 'clean image,'" says a former top police officer of the Tel Aviv central district, "but in the context of the Subaru affair, after realizing that his reputation was liable to suffer and that he owed money he had safeguarded, he apparently felt the need to intervene personally. It could well be that this urge ultimately led to his arrest."

It all began as 2008 was drawing to a close, when gray market figures Dudu Vanunu and Noam Ashkenazi gave an $1.5 million loan to Assaf Barazani, a co-owner of Japanauto, which imports Subaru vehicles to Israel. "They came to our home in Herzliya Pituah in September 2008," Barazani's wife Francesca told police under questioning this month. "They sat outdoors. When the meeting was over, my husband said he had taken a loan of $1.5 million, which he had to pay off through a monthly fee of NIS 240,000, and an additional sum of NIS 190,000..."

During the questioning, Francesca talked about her fears concerning the deal: "I told Assaf that I didn't have any checks ... that he knows that I don't have the money in the bank and that it wasn't smart to do this. But he said never mind, don't worry, a month from now everything will be fine." Ben Cohen entered the picture after Vanunu asked him to guarantee that the monthly checks were cashed and to transfer them to Yossi Amodai, the owner of a check-cashing business on Tel Aviv's Nordau Street.

During the first two months, the Barazanis somehow managed to get by, even though they knew it wouldn't be easy to repay the loan on time. "Assaf flew to Holland on business ... We thought it would be possible to get the money quickly but then the stock market fell and the runaround with the banks began ... Noam and Dudu came to me for the checks ... Assad said write them three checks with interest, and I told him that I would never have that money in the bank."

Vanunu and Ashkenazi made it clear to Francesca that they would not tolerate bounced checks. "Noam [Ashkenazi] phoned me before October 15, telling me that I know the checks have to be paid on the 15th. He called every day and every hour to find out whether the money was in the account ... My husband transferred money to me from abroad and we paid the checks..."

In November, related Francesca, the story repeated itself. "Noam started calling to tell me that the checks would have to clear the account soon, and we didn't have enough money because several people in Holland owed us money and hadn't paid ... Noam kept calling all the time, telling me that this will not do, that I can't play around with people like that ... Then I got the money from Holland and we made it through November."

The troubles began in December. "In December the situation became even worse abroad ... I told Noam that there would be a problem with the checks because of the difficulties that had developed. But he said one mustn't mess with such people, that they want all the money, the interest ...

"At the beginning of December I realized that my husband would not be able to send the money. I told him to extend the loan, and he said, 'No, we are finishing it now.' He thought his family would be able to arrange the money for him fast. We tried to sell some businesses, more houses. But it didn't work, people don't have money ... I went to the bank to cancel the check for NIS 190,000 because I knew I couldn't cover it."

When Ashkenazi heard about this, Francesca says, "he went crazy, he started yelling, he said to me, 'You mustn't do things like that. Do you know who you're dealing with?' ... He kept on calling but I didn't answer."

But Ashkenazi did not let up: "Right at the time when the children get home from school, at about 2 P.M., Noam and Dudu showed up at my house," Francesca told police. "I let them in and I said, 'Assaf isn't here.' Noam said he had come for me, that I didn't understand what I had done. He stood close to me in the kitchen while Dudu went to sit in the living room. Noam told me, 'Call Assaf now' ... Noam said I had to understand that the money had to be paid urgently, that I didn't want things to become more complicated, that I didn't know who I was dealing with. While he was speaking I sent the children downstairs." When Francesca asked Dudu to take Noam and leave, complaining about his "very aggressive" way of talking to her, Noam told her: "What do you want - for me to get shot in the foot or for something to happen to your husband or the children?"

Investigator: "Did Noam explicitly threaten your husband and your children?"

Francesca: "Yes, he told me I didn't want anything to happen to me or to the children, asked why was I alone in the house with them, and before that he told me that my husband was garbage and that they could kill him ..."

When Ben Cohen heard that the third check had bounced and he had to cash it himself, he joined in the pressures and threats. A short while later the first grenade was thrown. "I was so afraid, I couldn't sleep at night," related Francesca. "I spoke with my 16-year-old son and we decided to take shifts at guarding because we were afraid that they would throw a grenade into our house."

Investigator: "In your opinion, has your husband Assaf been living in fear recently?"

Francesca: "Yes. He lost 10 kilos in two months. He isn't functioning. He isn't sleeping."

Noam Ashkenazi was summoned for questioning, but managed to flee the country and has been in hiding ever since. Ashkenazi's attorney, Moshe Sucami, told Haaretz last week that, "My client is in no way connected to the affair. His entire role boils down to his acquaintanceship with Barazani, a close business and social acquaintanceship."

Some three weeks ago, Tel Aviv District Prosecutor Menahem Mizrahi filed indictments against Cohen and five others in the Subaru affair. Cohen's attorney, Ronen Rosenbloom, said in response that, "With respect to the evidence available in the case, it clearly emerges that the police have set themselves the goal of bringing Ben Cohen to trial at any price, deliberately ignoring other avenues of investigation."

On March 10, when all the suspects had already been arrested, another grenade was thrown at the Subaru agency; it is widely assumed that the act was intended to divert suspicion from Cohen. A senior prosecution source has told Haaretz that officials at the Prosecutor's Office "believe that additional elements are involved in the affair, but at this stage there is insufficient evidence to file indictments against them."

The Tel Aviv district police has already concluded that the case is one of attempted extortion, but a significant development in the investigation occurred a few weeks after the arrest of one of the suspects, Shaul Buchnik, who in a moment of distraction told a stool pigeon about the entire affair and Ben Cohen's part in it. "He fell for what's known as a 'disinfection sting,'" said a senior source familiar with the investigation. "We told the detainees that the cells were going to be disinfected and when they took them out for exercise in the yard, Buchnik felt safe and told the stool pigeon about how the affair developed - from Ben Cohen's instructions about where to pick up the grenades down to how they were thrown at the Subaru agency by Buchnik himself and another suspect."

In their investigation of the Subaru affair, the Tel Aviv central district police investigators have tried to draw up a current picture of Cohen.

Investigator: "What vehicle have you been using for the past three or four months?"

Cohen: "My car, a Range Rover, black."

Investigator: "Do you have a place of work that you go to?"

Cohen: "No."

Investigator: "Where does your wife work?"

Cohen: "She doesn't work."

Investigator: "And your girlfriend?"

Cohen: "She has a chain of Cafe Cafe."

Miki, Ben Cohen's girlfriend, owns the franchise to operate the Cafe Cafe branch at Hamedina Square. A few months ago Tel Aviv police sappers neutralized a pipe bomb that had been placed nearby the cafe. Police suspect the bomb may have been intended for Cohen, who often visits his girlfriend's cafe. During one session of questioning, Cohen was asked about his numerous phone calls with David Ben Nissan, whom he instructed to throw the grenades. In the calls, recorded by central unit detectives after the incident, Ben Nissan is suspected of demanding payment for the "job" carried out by Buchnik and another person, Moshe Elbaz, at Cohen's bidding. His answers indicate his close ties with the owners of leading Tel Aviv nightspots, including The Cat and the Dog and The High Windows, where Cohen is a regular patron.

Investigator: "Do you recall a call between David Ben Nissan and yourself in which he pressed for a meeting with you?"

Cohen: "David tried to catch me dozens of times to meet with me; David wanted to go out for a good time, he wanted to go to The Cat and the Dog and I called Nati, the club's owner, dozens of times and Nati called me to let him in. And David also wanted to get into The High Windows; for this, too, he called me, like 30 times ... David came with two friends and Nati did not agree to let them in. I called Nati at 2 A.M. after David woke me up, and he let them in. The next day Nati phoned me and asked me to tell David not to wear hoodies like that, but solid black shirts."

After the investigation into the Subaru affair was completed, following long hours in the interrogation room and after having confronted Cohen with innumerable pieces of evidence that could incriminate him of the attempted extortion for which he is now under arrest, the investigator asked Cohen: "Tell me, did you ever hear about the throwing of the grenades at the Subaru agency?"

"Walla, I don't remember," Cohen replied. "Could be, but I don't remember. You should have asked me that at the beginning. You've talked about it so much that I don't remember."