Mystery note halts Knesset debate on Ofer Bros

Nachman Shai fumes at outside intervention into Knesset affairs; Ofer reps decline to participate in meeting; gov’t takes first steps to investigate affair.

May 31, 2011 20:57
Carmel Shama

Shama 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

A Knesset committee meeting that was supposed to shed light on the government’s behavior regarding the Ofer Brothers affair, only managed to raise further questions after it was brought to an abrupt stop minutes after it began on Tuesday afternoon because of a mysterious note.

The Knesset Economics Committee meeting dealing with the illegal sale of an oil tanker jointly owned by the Ofer Brothers Group and Singapore- based Tanker Pacific to the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines, was adjourned by committee chairman Carmel Shama-Hacohen (Likud) after he was handed the note.

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Shama-Hacohen refused to identify the author of the note, but said it wasn’t from a political or business related source, indicating that the instruction may have been security related. Earlier in the day, Shama-Hacohen had said that the meeting might be shifted to a closed session of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

The Prime Minister’s Office responded that neither it, nor any agency related to it, ordered the meeting closed.

“Prior to the commencement of the meeting, possible implications of the holding of the meeting were being considered, balancing the benefit and need of holding the debate with fear of causing harm. In the midst of the meeting, it was decided to stop it,” Shama- Hacohen said in a statement.

MK Nachman Shai (Kadima), who attended the meeting, called the decision to shut it down “an insult to democracy.”

“Who has the authority to close down a perfectly legal committee debate in the Knesset?” Shai asked in a letter he sent to the Knesset legal adviser. “This was a severe injury to Israeli democracy, which we in this House represent.”

Shai said he could understand a motion to close off a meeting for security reasons, but that the cancellation of a meeting in such a manner was unprecedented in Knesset history.

Before the abrupt cancellation of the meeting, Shama- Hacohen criticized both the Ofer family and government representatives who had been invited to attend the meeting, for failing to show up.

“Everybody claims that they are not connected to the affair, that they have nothing to add and therefore no reason to attend,” he said. “I think it’s a mistake. Though I can’t force anyone to attend the meeting, it would have been better if the Ofer family had sent a representative to clear things up. All the evasive letters sent to the committee won’t help anyone escape responsibility.”

Other lawmakers who attended the meeting, including MK Nissim Ze’ev (Shas) and MK Yisrael Eichler (United Torah Judaism) said the media was too quick to judge the Ofer family and that they should be given the benefit of the doubt.

The Ofer family released a statement earlier on Tuesday afternoon, saying that they would not send a representative to the meeting, following an announcement by Israel Corporation, the country’s largest holding company and majority-owned by the Ofer Brothers Group, saying that “the sanctions imposed by the US administration in respect of the sale of a tanker by Tanker Pacific which ended up in the hands of Iran, are not applicable to Israel Corporation, its subsidiaries and companies held by Israel Corporation.”

Earlier, a family spokesman denied that statements made on Monday by sources described as being close to the family, claiming that the company had received government permission to dock in Iran, were approved by the family, and that the family regretted that they were said.

“The Ofer family holdings in Israel are widespread. There is a general public interest at stake and we need to receive answers from them,” Shai said during the Knesset panel meeting.

“Right now there are more questions than answers: What is the legal status of activities with Iran? What about civil trade with Iran? Who is the Israeli body responsible to make sure that there is no trade with Iran?

“So far we have only received partial answers delivered stutteringly – statements that say one thing and hide another. It would not be farfetched to have an authorized body conduct a thorough investigation.”

Though the attorney-general has yet to publicly order an investigation into the affair, several government agencies announced on Tuesday that they would conduct probes of their own.

Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz addressed the matter on Tuesday during a press conference in Jerusalem to announce new measures to deal with rising housing prices.

In relation to the Ofer Brothers specifically, he said he is looking at the matter personally and had held preliminary internal discussions with ministry officials, but that he could not give any more information at present. However, he did refer to the fact that his ministry established a committee roughly six months ago that is working to create a framework to ensure that Israeli companies do not invest in companies connected to Iran.

The Bank of Israel’s banks supervisor David Zaken also said he would be investigating the Ofer Brothers affair in the coming days, looking at those aspects relevant to his own role at the central bank, in light of the Ofer brothers’ holdings in the Mizrachi Tfachot bank.

Army Radio reported that the security supervisor in the Defense Ministry was also investigating the affair.

On Monday, MK Arye Eldad (National Union) made an enigmatic statement saying it was possible that the tankers that docked in Iran were spying on behalf of Israel and photographing its coasts, and therefore it must be established whether they are “heroes or villains.”

“It may be that the relative silence coming out of the government and the Ofer brothers is because of the sensitive nature of the deeds, maybe things are more complicated than meets the eye,” Eldad said.

Iranian officials have been quick to deny any business relations with Israeli-owned companies.

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