(photo credit: Eisenfeld Family)
In the beginning, everybody told them they were wasting their time. "You're crazy," Vicki Eisenfeld recalls being warned, over and over. "Nothing will come of it."
But 10 years after Vicki and Leonard Eisenfeld's son Matt, 25, a Yale graduate and rabbinical student, was murdered along with his fiancee Sara Duker in a No. 18 bus on Jerusalem's Jaffa Road, their dogged struggle against the Hamas terror group that killed him, and against the Iranian government that trained and financed those behind this and so many bombings, doesn't look quite so foolhardy anymore. There are even those who wonder whether it might help expedite regime change in Teheran.
"We had the choice of doing nothing or doing something," says Leonard simply, sitting alongside his wife on the sofa of their home in West Hartford, Connecticut. And that was no choice at all. So they set out to create what Leonard calls "a financial deterrent to terrorism."
Adds Vicki: "We were looking for a civil way" to take on the bombers and their sponsors. "No physical aggression. Using the law the way it is meant to be used."
The words and the way she delivers them are strikingly gentle, determinedly civilized - and thus make all the more resounding a contrast to the death-cult aggression that stole away their son and his wife-to-be, and plunged the family into this unholy maelstrom.
The extraordinary progress the Eisenfelds have made has its roots in the garrulousness of Hassan Salameh, the Hamas operative who organized the February 25, 1996, attack. Not long after the blast, Salameh was shot by an Israeli soldier and arrested as he attempted to flee from a West Bank roadblock. Now serving 46 life terms in a Negev jail, Salameh explained every aspect of the bombing and its planning - from the time he joined Hamas, through his terror training, to the logistics of the attack and the recruitment of the bomber.
Crucially for the purposes of the Eisenfelds' legal action, he conclusively described Iran's direct role, detailing how he was smuggled out of Gaza into Egypt, to Sudan, and, via an Iranian army plane, onto a terror training base outside Teheran and back again with instructions for his bombing campaign. In Iran, "We trained in weapons, setting explosives, ambush," Salameh is quoted as having said under questioning. "We had 10 instructors, all Iranian."
"Hamas claimed responsibility for the bombing," says Leonard Eisenfeld. But through Salameh, "we were able to demonstrate that he was trained, armed and funded by Iran."
Yitzhak Rabin had been killed less than four months before the bombing, which was one of four attacks in little over a week that took some 60 innocent lives. Says Leonard Eisenfeld: "Shimon Peres told me that the Iranians had set out to destabilize Israel in the wake of the assassination."
In what was by no means the only bitter irony of this whole tragic affair, it turned out the bomb that killed Matt, Sara and 24 other people on that bus was American-made - containing plastic explosive produced exclusively for the US Department of Defense. It was originally placed into a land mine designed to destroy Soviet T-54 tanks, given to Egypt as part of US military aid, deployed in a Sinai minefield, and stolen. "Evidently Iran doesn't only train suicide bombers," says the Eisenfelds' lawyer Steven Perles acidly. "It trains land-mine defusers. They got a mine out of the ground in Sinai and used it to kill a bus full of people in Jerusalem."
The information Salameh volunteered ultimately helped the Eisenfelds' legal team obtain a judgment in the US courts for both punitive and compensatory damages against the Iranian government. Collection, however, was a whole other story.
Along with the Dukers and the Flatow family - Alisa Flatow, a Brandeis student from New Jersey, was murdered in a bus bombing in the Gaza Strip in 1995 - the Eisenfelds received a relatively small proportion of the sums awarded, with those moneys raised against Iranian assets that have been frozen by the US government. They've used some of that payment for charitable contributions and to fund various scholarship programs. But the three families' efforts to obtain what may now total up to $900 million in outstanding damages has been hampered in the US, again ironically, by the State Department.
Speaking by phone from Washington, Perles recounts that the legal team identified a US real-estate development firm with considerable assets that turned out to be wholly owned by the Iranian government. But the bid to seize its funds was stymied by a State Department contention that the company in question could not be held liable "since it was not managed on a daily basis by the government in Teheran," says Perles exasperatedly.
(Somewhat incomprehensibly, this State Department intervention on behalf of Iran came less than 90 days after President Bush had memorably placed Iran on the "axis of evil.")
"It's absurd that we can't get to those surreptitious assets," says Perles, adding firmly, "There's legislation working its way through Congress now that'll rectify that."
RATHER THAN wait for the completion of the tortuous process, however, the lawyers have looked further afield of late, with remarkable success. To Europe, in fact, where Perles says the Iranian government has an estimated $50 to $80 billion in assets.
A few months back, they managed to get the Italian courts to "domesticate" the US court ruling in the case - "a procedure," says Perles, "under which the Italian court essentially adopted the judgment as its own."
Why would the Italians do that? "Because," says Perles, "they sometimes have cases of their own that need to be domesticated in the US."
A combination of self-interest and morality, then? "You might say that."
For five weeks earlier this year, moreover, an Italian court went so far as to freeze certain Iranian assets as it deliberated over whether they could be attached and used to cover the damages.
"The Iranians had been arrogant about the whole affair until then," says Perles. "But now they were angry, which is how they should be. We heard that they had trouble paying salaries in some of their investment arms [because of the frozen accounts], and even at their embassy."
After an Italian Foreign Ministry intervention not dissimilar to that of the State Department in the US court process, the Italian court rejected this first attachment effort. But Perles and the Eisenfelds are characteristically undeterred. "That the judgment has been domesticated is irreversible," Perles stresses. "The latest ruling is two steps back after 20 forward.
"We've been required to put down some more paperwork in Teheran, and then we'll go back. We'll say to the Italians that we want the assets of this Iranian government-owned bank, that Iranian government-owned real estate company."
The only way for the Iranians to evade the process, says the lawyer, is for them to empty all the relevant bank accounts. But not just in Italy. "If one EU member domesticates, we ought to be able to enforce it across the EU," he says. That's certainly the intention.
"Will it cripple the Iranian government if we manage to win $700-$800 million outstanding to us?" Perles answers his own question: "No. Will it embarrass them? Yes."
And there is, appallingly, no shortage of other such potential cases. "Lots of US nationals have been killed by Iranian-backed terror," he notes grimly. "Iran is the epicenter of state terror."
In fact, he goes on, "We have a case that's been running for three or four years on behalf of 200 families of US marines killed in the 1983 Beirut bombings. We've had 800 witnesses testify to date. Iran has already lost in the battle over its liability. And we're talking seriously big numbers" in potential damages.
This time he asks me the question: "Will that be embarrassing for the Iranian government?"
"More than embarrassing," I venture. "It might actually hurt."
BUT WOULD even a series of massive damages awards, and a proven international legal route for collecting them, truly serve as the Eisenfelds' hoped-for deterrent to terror? Might it conceivably impact on Iranian funding for Hamas? Might it, as Vicki Eisenfeld puts it, "spare other families the kind of anguish that we've been through, of losing our son and his fiancee"?
Perhaps. And perhaps not. But blazing the legal trail certainly beats doing nothing.
"Hamas says it's not going to quit?" notes Vicki. "Well, neither will we. And I don't mean in the financial, legal battle. I mean in the war for our culture, for who we are."