This is a story still developing, with potential to harm or at least to intrigue. It concerns Sami Ofer, one of the world''s richest men, and perhaps the richest of Israel, whose family businesses involve shipping, banking, chemicals, and refining. There are also addresses for the family and its businesses in Britain and Monaco, as well as an honorary knighthood from Britain and awards from Israeli institutions for major donations.


Sami is close to 90 and often photographed in the presence of the equally prominent of other businesses and government. He and the family have a firm place among the tycoons of Israel, with control over a sizable share of the economy, and close ties to officials. Ranking personnel have found positions as managers or consultants with Ofer companies after retiring from government.


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While it is common to accuse the Ofers of using their wealth to obtain government influence in order to acquire greater wealth, the international ties of the company may also serve the government. Just how is a matter of hint and speculation, in the manner portrayed by friends in films like Exodus and Entebbe, or by enemies who propagate The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.


The Ofer family and its businesses rocketed to the headlines with news that the United States State Department accused them of violating sanctions against Iran.


By one view, someone was seeking to embarrass Prime Minister Netanyahu on account of his response to President Obama''s mention of 1967 boundaries. 


The initial story dealt with the sale of an oil tanker, and the initial response of the Ofers was that may have been done by a subsidiary without the knowledge of the family or companies ostensibly in control of the subsidiary.


It did not take long for reporters to uncover at least 13 visits to Iranian ports by tankers associated with Ofer companies.


Of greater importance than the violation of sanctions declared by the United Nations Security Council is the image of an Israeli company doing business with the country intent on destroying Israel, against the background of reports about the Israeli Air Force preparing an attack against Iranian nuclear installations, and the prominence of Israeli officials demanding that the international community strengthen the sanctions against Iran.


Stage two of comments by people speaking for Ofer (stage one being it was a subsidy acting without our knowledge) was that official Israeli organs were aware of the dealings and had approved.


This produced a quick denial by the Prime Minister. No one in his office knew about Offer''s dealings with Iran, and no one approved them. 


Iranians were no less quick to distance themselves from the news. For them, the image of dealing with a Zionist entity was just as unthinkable as an Israeli company dealing with a Holocaust denier and promoter of Israel''s destruction.


Complicating the story was a recently retired head of a major security organ, who indicated amorphously that the story was more complicated than reported by the media.


Opposition politicians smell a scandal likely to get worse. They are demanding a parliamentary investigation, or calling for the government''s resignation even before an inquiry begins. The Attorney General and the Finance Ministry are looking into the matter. Law school academics have spoken about the possibilities of charges against an Ofer company for violating UN sanctions, or an Israeli law against trading with the enemy. 


The Ha''aretz cartoon of June 1 portrays Sami Ofer as an Elder of Zion, along with his sons, intent on countering those ships sent toward Gaza. "We must send a flotilla to break the blockade."


Every few hours there is another detail reported, some presented as facts, and some as interpretation, attributed to unidentified sources, to nongovernmental commentators, or in one juicy case to a blogger.


Among the possibilities--
Sanctions are often porous.

Large companies look after themselves without reference to the citizenship or loyalties of individuals who control them.

They employ subsidiaries, as well as subsidiaries of subsidiaries and other connections that can mask dealings not meant to be, or not meant to be observed.

International shipping and the spot markets for oil and gasoline are complicated by leases, agents, and ship registrations in third world countries without supervision, all of which amounts to responsibilities that are diffuse in the extreme.

Governments also fudge. During the many years of Arab boycotts against Israel and companies doing business with Israel there were Israeli sales to countries prominent among leaders of the boycott.

Iran is a complex society with numerous ethnic and religious groups, and individuals with influence who do not identify with the Islamic regime. Israelis doing business under the table--perhaps with the tacit understanding of Israeli officials--may help to maintain ties that someday may prove useful.

Ships in port loading or unloading oil or gasoline may also drop off or pick up individuals sent to maintain contacts with Iranians, to carry out intelligence or other activities.
What''s going on?


Underhanded profiting, heroic service to Israel, or the lack of control over far flung businesses with weak links between the parts, whose 90 year old tycoon does not know what his partners and employees are doing?


Along with an ongoing tit for tat between the American State Department and the Israeli Prime Minister.



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