Netanyahu denies authorizing Ofer business ties with Tehran

Gov’t committee has yet to produce list of banned companies that deal with Iran; Prime minister says he first heard about the affair from a journalist.

May 31, 2011 01:26
3 minute read.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu

Netanyahu Somber Speech 311. (photo credit: Moshe Milner / GPO)


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Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Monday denied ever authorizing or having prior knowledge of the Ofer Brothers Group trading with the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines.

He spoke at a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee; it was the first time the prime minister addressed the US State Department sanctions placed on the massive Ofer Brothers company.

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The Prime Minister’s Office did not authorize the contacts between the Ofers’ company and Iran, Netanyahu said.

“I found out about it from a journalist’s question,” he said, adding that after checking with members of his staff who are authorized to deal with such matters, “there was no permission for any contact or delivery to Iran. We have clear policies on this matter.”

Netanyahu made the statement in response to a report by Yediot Aharonot citing unidentified people close to the Ofer family who said that Israeli authorities had given permission for vessels owned by a subsidiary, Tanker Pacific, to anchor in Iran.

For years, Netanyahu has been pushing for Israel and its allies to enforce tougher sanctions on Iran, saying the best way to battle the regime is by stifling its finances.

The Jerusalem Post learned that a special committee mandated by a law Netanyahu himself sponsored when he was head of the opposition, intended to prevent Israeli banks, insurance companies, financial institutions and funds from investing in companies that do major business with Iran, has yet to produce a list of banned companies.

The law, which was the only bill Netanyahu sponsored during the previous Knesset, passed with overwhelming support after he persuaded the coalition to back it. He also worked successfully to convince state legislatures in the US to divest from Iran during visits to the US, as well as through Ron Dermer, the economic attaché in Washington, whom he had appointed when he was finance minister.

Dermer is now Netanyahu’s senior adviser.

Netanyahu said at the time that divestment could “stop Iran dead in its tracks.”

However, a source close to Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz told the Post that even though the law was approved two-and - a-half years ago, the committee only started meeting six months ago and had yet to produce a list.

The Finance Ministry is also the governmental body in charge of enforcing the 1939 Mandate-era law that prohibits trade with enemy states. The law, which is still in effect, states that the finance minister is authorized to order an investigation into any company that is suspected of violating the law.

Attempts to have the ministry respond to questions about the oversight in its responsibilities have been unanswered.

The Defense Ministry has also declined to comment on the failure to report the prohibited business dealings.

“It’s very important that when we demand of all our friends around the world that they take action against corporations in their countries and continue key sanctions, we need to also enforce such rules on ourselves,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a meeting of the Independence faction at the Knesset.

“I don’t know all the facts, but I hope they will become clear and I am sure that they will be dealt with properly in the future.”

There were repeated requests this week to the Attorney-General’s Office by MKs and civil society groups to open an indepth investigation into the matter, but the Justice Ministry has not indicated that such a probe will take place.

A Knesset Economics Committee, scheduled to meet on Tuesday afternoon, will be the first open public debate on the issue, and representatives of the various ministries, as well as of the different trade bodies and of the Ofers’ company, will be asked to explain how Israel heard about the illicit trade only from a US State Department press briefing.

Meanwhile, Tehran continues to deny that any Israeli firm had conducted business with Iranian companies. Neither Iran’s Commerce Ministry nor the Islamic Republic of Iran Customs Administration issued licenses for any US or Israeli ship to dock in Iranian ports, said Mohsen Sadeghifar, deputy managing director at Iran’s Port and Maritime Organization.

“Ships belonging to the shipping lines of the US and particularly the Zionist regime have not entered Iranian ports in recent years,” he said.

Bloomberg and Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.

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