The Benizri Conviction / The Israeli Godfather

Bribery case included elements of Mafia tale: lavish gifts, secret meetings, pressuring of public officials.

Labor contractor Moshe Sela, who specializes in foreign workers, was sitting in his Jerusalem office one night in 2001 when his secretary told him that then labor minister Shlomo Benizri wanted him urgently on the phone. During their conversation, which he described some years later during his testimony in Benizri's trial, Sela could sense that the minister, a personal friend, was tense.

"He told me: 'Moshe, you must run to the rabbi right now. He is weeping for sorrow, because he lacks money to pay salaries to his yeshiva students.' I asked Shlomo, 'how much does he need?' He told me about half a million dollars. I told him, 'I have $400,000 here, I'm going now.'"

Sela took a wad of bills out of the cupboard in his office and put it in a plastic bag. He had received most of the money from Chinese workers who sought work in Israel. Then, accompanied by Benizri's political adviser Yitzhak Avidani he drove to the Or Hahayim Yeshiva to meet Benizri's religious mentor, Rabbi Reuven Elbaz.

"Before Moshe got out of the car," Avidani related during his police interrogation, "I told him: 'You're crazy to give such a sum.'" But Sela was unfazed.

Once inside, Sela gave the rabbi the money, and Elbaz blessed him. When he returned to the car, Avidani recounted, "I asked him, 'why are you giving him such sums?' And Moshe told me, 'it's nothing; it's an advance.'"

Two years ago, the story of a labor contractor who brought a bag full of dollars in the dead of night to the spiritual mentor of a cabinet minister with the power to help or hinder his business might have sounded like an Israeli rip-off of The Godfather. But yesterday, with the Jerusalem District Court's conviction of Benizri for taking bribes, it became clear that this story was merely one piece of an ugly mosaic, and that the money Sela gave to Elbaz at Benizri's urging was a real-life bribe.

The case included many other no less fantastic elements: the minister pressuring a senior official to tailor a tender while the two were attending a brit (circumcision); lavish gifts being given to that same minister on a regular basis; witnesses meeting in a forest near Jerusalem to coordinate their stories; private investigators being hired by wealthy businessmen to cook up false accusations against civil servants who tried to guard the public purse.

Anyone who reads the thousands of pages of testimony and documents amassed by the police in this case will receive an instructive lesson in the corrupt, ugly way Israel's civil service runs. He will discover other incidents that were no less grave, but that did not result in indictments. For instance, a Jerusalem businessman who worked with Sela and is himself suspected of criminal activity described the loans he once organized for a senior minister who currently sits in Ehud Olmert's cabinet. Other people described how they bought cars and refrigerators for ministers' aides and made regular payments to senior civil servants, and how they were asked to donate to Rabbi Elbaz's institutions in exchange for help in the corridors of power.

The Benizri-Sela case may officially have ended yesterday, but the two have many clones - businessmen and politicians, bribers and recipients - who continue to work in the shadows, hoping that Israel's weak and impoverished law enforcement agencies will never reach them.