High Court of Justice panel 370.
(photo credit: Yonah Jeremy Bob)
The Supreme Court will hear on Thursday an appeal in the Greek Patriarchate
Affair, one of the most scandalous and galling frauds pulled off in Israel’s
The central appeal was filed by convicted Israeli businessman
Benno Zussman for his part in a conspiracy and fabricated deal between Keren
Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund and Jerusalem’s Greek Patriarchate,
culminating with forging the signature of an ailing and bed-ridden Greek
patriarch to sign over valuable real estate in Jerusalem for a comparatively
Another point of high drama in the case was Zussman’s fleeing
to Romania, where he avoided prosecution until 2010, when, after extensive
efforts, he was extradited to Israel.
The other parties in the affair,
which dates back to April 2000, such as KKL-JNF and well-known lawyer Jacob
Weinroth, were never found to have known about the conspiracy and were also
considered to have been fooled, though they were key players in the fabricated
In September 2012, the Jerusalem District Court convicted
Zussman of fraud and sentenced him to five-and-a-half years in prison, fined him
NIS 4 million and ordered him to pay compensatory damages of NIS
In his appeal, he asks the court to overturn his conviction for
fraud, and asks the court for a lighter sentence and a lower fine should it
uphold his conviction.
Simultaneously, the state appealed his sentence
for being too light. The state says that his fine was much lower and his prison
sentence shorter than that of his co-conspirator, Yaakov Rabinovich, convicted
and sentenced years before while Zussman was still in Romania.
convicting Zussman, the district court said the fraud was extraordinarily
sophisticated and one in which the reality of what happened was hard to
At an earlier stage when the Supreme Court stiffened
Rabinovich’s prison sentence from four to six years, it called the plot one of
the largest and most cunning real estate frauds in the state’s
Zussman had cultivated a close relationship with the Greek
Patriarchate for years.
He exploited these ties to craft a vast real
estate conspiracy to “buy” invaluable Greek Patriarchate lands in the capital’s
Rehavia neighborhood, near the old Jerusalem bus station and elsewhere in the
Zussman and Rabinovich convinced others that aging Patriarch
Diodoros wished to “sell” many of the valuable lands for a paltry $20m., in
exchange for a 999-year lease (which would automatically be renewed every 99
KKL-JNF was thrilled about the deal as it had concerns that when
its current lease on those lands from the Greek Patriarchate runs out, the
Patriarchate would demand an inordinate sum for a new lease.
Zussman, Rabinovich, Weinroth, a notary named Avraham Peri, a medical evaluator
named Dr. Bruno Austfeld and KKL-JNF representative Mordecai Tenuri arrived to
get the patriarch’s signature for the deal, Zussman and Rabinovich went into see
the patriarch only with the notary, claiming he was too ill to see all those
Ultimately, Zussman and Rabinovich visited the patriarch (having
told him beforehand it was a holiday visit) and convinced the notary to confirm
the patriarch’s signature, telling him that the patriarch had already
Austfeld was convinced to go along with confirming the procedure
even though he did not examine the patriarch.
They then proceeded to
pocket $16m. of the $20m. “purchase price,” which was supposed to go to the
patriarch – one of the reasons the prosecution seeks a higher
Diodoros was patriarch from 1981 until his death in 2000.