When criminals attempt to flee the country - these men stop them

From the Holyland case to Ze’ev Rosenstein to ‘Rabbi’ Chen – Levertov and Blum blocked criminals from escaping justice through flight to other countries.

Israel’s international enforcers (photo credit: PINI HEMO)
Israel’s international enforcers
(photo credit: PINI HEMO)
The address that Israeli and US law enforcement had for Yossi Olmert, brother of former prime minister Ehud Olmert, was wrong.
In this age of everything being recorded and networked, one of the most crucial witnesses who might bring down Ehud in the Holyland trial (Ehud was eventually sent to jail in 2014 on a bribery conviction) could not be found, even though he was not in hiding.
Enter Yitzhak Blum, who was deputy director of the Justice Ministry’s International Law Division for extradition at the time, and who just recently revealed new details to the Magazine in his first interview with the media.
Gal Levertov, who was the division’s director at the time and published a book about his tenure earlier in 2019, also recently spoke to the Magazine about some of his major exploits, including the busting of Israeli crime lord Ze’ev Rosenstein and infamous sexual offender “Rabbi” Elior Chen.
Between Levertov and Blum, a story emerges of a department playing a key part in some of the most important cases confronting Israel when a complex international element presents itself.
Rewinding years back to the Olmert saga, Blum, with a wry smile that he generally wears, described that he had issued a legal assistance request to the US government and that “crazy things happen in all cases.”
“You need to develop a kind of patience,” for the crazy twists and turns of dealing with foreign countries in order to obtain access to witnesses, evidence and extraditions. This was in the days of the investigation which would eventually lead to the 2012 Holyland trial.
Continuing, he said that Yossi Olmert “had not lived there [his registered location in the US] for a year and it became a quest trying to locate him.” The routine procedures that the police used to locate him did not succeed.
The ministry issued additional formal requests for the FBI to actively search for Yossi, but then Blum showed his out-of-the-box style, which made him so successful over his quarter-century-long career with the division.
Blum, 67, almost constantly uses self-deprecating humor, especially about his lack of proficiency with technology.
It was with great irony then, that he explained that he was able to find Yossi Olmert faster than the FBI and the Israel Police by using Internet searches from his personal computer.
 “I saw that he was not only living in the US, but was lecturing all over the place. I don’t belong to any social media platforms, like Facebook. But even without that access, I found that he was lecturing at specific places... including lectures regularly under the sponsorship of the Jewish National Fund,” he said.
Next, he turned this information over to the Israel Police and noted to them, with his impeccable sarcasm, that “the JNF is on King George Avenue in Jerusalem. Go check with them and find him.”
But the police responded, “This is not how we do things.”
BLUM ROLLED his eyes recounting this, adding, “I hear this kind of thing a lot.”
Trying to be sympathetic to the police, he said, “to a certain extent I understand that stuff. A person [from JNF] could tip off the person [being sought after] that the police are looking for them.”
However, he said that “there needs to be a proportionate response in all things,” meaning in the case of Yossi Olmert and the JNF, the risk of them tipping him off against the police was relatively low compared to the importance of locating Olmert.
“Every few weeks, I would send them more open source information. Eventually, the US police found his address in Washington, DC. When I afterwards inquired how the information was received, I was informed that it was obtained from the JNF,” he said with a half-wink.
Pressed about his success in finding Yossi by using simple Internet searches despite the police’s inability, he said it is essential to do what is practical and makes sense.
In the present, he noted, “the police do Internet analyses before coming to me.” And, he added, they are probably better at it than me.
That was not Blum’s only behind-the-scenes story about the Ehud and Yossi Olmert Holyland trial drama.
Even once Yossi was found, Blum pointed out that since he was not a suspect, he had options for avoiding being questioned as a witness, including getting a protective order.
BESIDES GETTING around legal obstructions that Yossi might try to put up, Israel needed the cooperation of US investigators to facilitate or even to carry out Yossi’s interrogation.
He explained that the US and Israel had parallel probes of the Talansky Affair which also involved Ehud Olmert, and that there was some concern from a US prosecutor who was involved in both the Talansky and Yossi Olmert issues that Israel had not adequately updated the Americans about Talansky-related issues.
Blum showed some alarm, recounting that since Israel was counting on the US prosecutor to question Yossi Olmert, “this was the kind of thing that had to be settled and dealt with on the spot.”
He noted with amusement that he conducted most of the conversations about providing the US prosecutor with additional updates in the car on the way to the Fourth of July party at the US Ambassador’s residence.
Fortunately for the case, “The matter was settled to everyone’s satisfaction.” With respect to Yossi Olmert’s questioning, “the US prosecutor did an excellent job – everyone was impressed.”
The bottom line?
“Yossi Olmert ended up substantiating many allegations against his brother, even though he was very unenthusiastic. There is a difference between how enthusiastic someone is and being subject to perjury charges in a foreign country where you are trying to resettle,” he said.
WITHOUT BLUM making the executive decision to update the US prosecutor, the Yossi Olmert interrogation could have fallen by the wayside and history could have looked very different with an acquittal for the guilty Ehud Olmert (after an appeal, the charges related to Yossi Olmert were dropped, but there is no question that Yossi’s testimony was a turning point at trial and in changing public opinion).
Questioned about his sometimes unorthodox style of cutting through bureaucratic red tape in order to achieve the higher goal of obtaining US cooperation to interrogate Yossi, he responded, “You try to find the solution that works for both countries. You cannot be narrow-minded.”
“Very often the rules are not clear. There are not just rules of one jurisdiction” to cope with. Rather, “you have to be able to get [understand] people from different systems with different attitudes, different legal cultures of cooperation, doing a kind of translation job to a certain extent… the best way to do that is to have respect for both sides. The worst disaster in international legal cooperation is when you have an attitude that everything will just be fine.”
He said that he often jokes that “in our office behind the glass we keep ‘Common Sense.’ In an emergency, just break the glass and take it out. I myself try to do that as often as I can,” he said with a telling smile.
LEVERTOV, WHO has a much more formal style, revealed a variety of other sides to the extradition division both in his book, Criminals Without Borders, and in speaking to the Magazine.
Describing his transition in 2005 from a senior prosecutor in the Tel Aviv District Attorney’s office to becoming director of a department that represented Israel across the globe, he wrote in his book, “When I entered my new position, a new, large and wondrous world was revealed before my eyes: international investigations, kidnapping children, transferring prisoners, extraditions, defending Israel and its citizens from international legal proceedings and more.”
Quoting Blum, Levertov said that, “any document for the Justice Ministry not written in Hebrew ended up coming through us.”
Levertov described how globalization broadened the connections between international criminals, something which pushed his division to go way beyond just locating a criminal who ran away to a second country.
This was part of the changing concept of criminals that by doing business in other countries, they could avoid the law – especially countries where Israel didn’t have relations, or at least no extradition treaty.
For this reason, Levertov made it his mission to widen Israel’s network of extradition relations. During his term, he obtained extraditions for the first time from countries like Colombia, Kyrgzstan, Peru, Paraguay, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and Thailand.
Levertov also had to convince Israel’s police and law enforcement apparatus to alter their old attitude in which they were only willing “to invest resources in nearby criminals” whereas seeking “far-off overseas criminals was a waste of time.”
MOVING ON to specific cases, Levertov told of how he was thrust into the case of Ze’ev Rosenstein, one of the largest and most significant Israeli extradition cases of all time, just as he took over the international division and before he could even catch his breath.
In 2006, a Jerusalem District Court ruled that Rosenstein, the kingpin of the Israeli underworld at that time, could be extradited to the US to stand trial in Miami on charges of drug-running there.
The US had accused Rosenstein of conspiring to import into the country more than a million Ecstasy (MDMA) pills manufactured in Europe.
The conspiracy allegedly began in 1999 and lasted two years.
Rosenstein was arrested in Israel in November 2004, after Israeli authorities received a request from their American counterparts.
Until he was taken in, police referred to him as Public Enemy No. 1 and had him in their sights for years, though they had always failed to pin any evidence to him.
As Levertov explains, the extradition request and evidence assembled in the US turned out to be an indirect way to finally put Rosenstein behind bars and to bring down one of the largest and most notorious crime rings in Israel.
But Rosenstein’s extradition was almost sabotaged at several points, with Levertov stepping in personally to keep the blockbuster extradition on track.
Levertov said that shortly before he entered office as director, he met up with Rosenstein’s lawyers, including Devorah Chen, who had only recently switched to the defense lawyer side after a long career serving with Levertov on the prosecution side.
Noting that it was the first extradition case for them both, he recalled, “Metaphorically speaking, you could say my hands were shaking… I was not given a free pass for the first 100 days,” before having to personally handle the massive case.
Levertov said he met with his predecessor Irit Kohn and that “the two of us were of the same mind: for this case, the director of the division needed to personally appear,” though normally, the director assigns his team to appear in court on his behalf.
The extradition dispute was eventually appealed to the Supreme Court.
Courtroom 3, the most sizable courtroom, “was full from wall to wall… The tension was substantial. Our extradition request had been unprecedented and so much was riding in the balance” about what the court would decide, said Levertov.
According to Levertov, the Supreme Court decision in his favor to extradite Rosenstein not only broke apart the kingpin’s organization, it also set a new precedent. From that case on, crimes committed entirely in foreign countries by other Israeli underworld figures could be used to bring them down as well. This was especially useful where building a case in Israel was difficult.
MOVING ON to the case of “Rabbi” Elior Chen, Levertov’s standard – almost stoic – evenness was rattled by the trauma Chen caused upon the children he abused.
When the Supreme Court rejected the appeal of the self-acclaimed “rabbi” and serial child-abuser Chen to avoid his conviction, it ended a years-long saga in which Chen had escaped justice by fleeing to Brazil.
Chen was convicted in November 2010 of being the “spiritual mentor” of a cult through which committed a series of horrific acts of child abuse.
He was sentenced to 24 years in prison and many of his followers were sentenced to even longer prison terms.
Chen originally flew from Israel to Canada, then immediately continued to Brazil, where he apparently sought refuge with members of a vehemently anti-Zionist haredi sect there.
In an apparently successful attempt to attain information about his whereabouts, Chen’s wife Ruth and their four children were sent to Belgium in 2008. Chen was eventually arrested and extradited from Brazil back to Israel.
The “spiritual leader” and his followers were convicted of abusing young children with hammers, knives and other implements for months, until one child lost consciousness in March 2008.
One child suffered permanent brain damage as a result of the abuse he was subjected to at the hands of his mother and her companions, all under Chen’s orders.
The child is expected to remain in a vegetative state for the rest of his life.
Chen gave his followers instructions on how to “fix” the children’s behavior and “cleanse” them of being “satanically possessed.”
The chilling and gruesome case included a mother who forced her children to eat feces; locked them in a suitcase for three days – letting them out only for brief periods; repeatedly beat, whipped and shook them; burned their hands and gave them freezing showers.
The abusive mother and “educators” also poured salt on the burn wounds of one of the children, stuffing his mouth with a skullcap and sealing it with masking tape. They also gave them alcoholic drinks until they vomited.
Levertov explained, “Over the years, I handled many cases that were hard to absorb and look at: cases of torture, murder, rape and all kinds of violence… but regarding the pictures in that case, I could not lay eyes on them. I preferred not to. I signed on the request to extradite without looking at them,” and simply attached them to the motion filed with the court.
In addition, Levertov had performed some unusual mediation roles in the case to help catch Chen.
One of the reasons for Chen’s ability to avoid the law was that some in the haredi community were protecting him.
As Levertov described it, he took unusual measures to penetrate that defense line.
“I met with haredi rabbis in Israel, those who had influence or at least connections to the haredi rabbis in Sao Paolo. I described to them the [child abuse] actions of Chen and his followers. His actions were not the Jewish way, I told them.”
THIS VIGNETTE showed that Levertov and his department not only needed to become experts in conducting global diplomacy with foreign governments, they also sometimes needed to work with unusual sectarian groups with whom cooperation was notoriously difficult. Levertov continues to keep tabs on the extradition division and said that the only right decision the state could make in the case of Russian cyber fraudster Alexei Burkov was to extradite him to the US (for which the division obtained court approval), and ignore pressures by Russia to trade him for the return of Israeli Naama Issachar (the state ultimately ignored Russian pressure). Israel says Russia sentenced Issachar to an unjustifiably harsh seven-and-a-half years in jail for possession of a small quantity of marijuana, to bargain with or punish Israel for the extradition of Burkov.
Levertov has since joined the good-government group Movement for the Purity of Ethics and is working to fight public corruption. In his book he wrote, “In recent years, we are witness to many attempts to threaten the gatekeepers in Israel, to weaken them, and to tie their hands. It seems our elected officials have forgotten the victim and our obligation to defend him. They have forgotten the law-abiding citizen.”
“Those threatening the Supreme Court for daring to fulfill their role, those who work hard to move damaging legislation forward to protect elected officials and those close to them from the law… do not just harm Israeli democracy, they harm the public they claims to serve, the state and its future,” wrote Levertov.
He warned, “The external enemies cannot defeat us,” yet “the grave processes from within – may very well do this.”