Sabra Godfathers

As the new police chief takes over, is Israel embarking on a new era of fighting organized crime?

rosenstein dresses 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
rosenstein dresses 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The recent death of Chen Benayahu didn't mean much. Not on its own, at least. At first, the discovery of the 23-year-old's bloody body behind the wheel of a crashed car in Holon was little more than a mystery. Before long it took on much larger proportions - but to understand the significance of that killing, you have to go back to 2003, to a murder that didn't happen. Bullets hadn't killed him. LAW rockets hadn't killed him. Maybe, the assassins hoped, a really big bomb would do the trick. This one was definitely a doozy. When it exploded, on a clear December day in Tel Aviv, the professionally designed explosive pack tore apart a money changer's office on Rehov Yehuda Halevy. Three passersby never stood a chance; they were killed instantly. Eighteen others were wounded. But somehow the target of the bombing survived, walking away with hardly a scratch. Ze'ev Rosenstein, "The Wolf," had managed to dodge at least the seventh attempt on his life. Rosenstein's knack for cheating fate was not something his rival mob bosses shared. While Rosenstein spent much of 2002 narrowly avoiding death at the hands of his enemies - including three attempts on his life in a single day in October - fellow underworld leaders Ya'acov Abergil and Felix Abutbul were gunned down in public by hit men. The other trap that "The Wolf" avoided was prison. Outside of a few arrests in the 1970s for break-ins and robberies during the early part of his career, Rosenstein went 25 years without a conviction, allowing him to grow into a major player in Israel's vice rackets. Then came the Yehuda Halevy bombing, with its "civilian" casualties, and something changed. At a weekly cabinet meeting shortly after the audacious attack, prime minister Ariel Sharon turned to the police and demanded it wipe out organized crime. "Our purpose is crystal clear," said Sharon's internal security minister, Tzahi Hanegbi, "to root out this unprecedented phenomenon of organized crime from the state, where innocent people are being massacred in the streets of Israel by criminals." Suddenly, Rosenstein was Public Enemy No. 1 (and a sensation with the news media to boot). For a number of reasons, though, police could not bring him in. Although they suspected him of ordering contract killings and running illegal gambling and prostitution rings, they had to rely on an American warrant on charges of conspiring to distribute close to one million Ecstasy pills. (The Drug Enforcement Administration included Rosenstein on its list of the 44 biggest global drug traffickers, claiming his network spanned four continents.) The state's rare agreement to extradite Rosenstein sent the crime boss to Miami, where he signed a plea bargain on a grand jury indictment that allowed him to serve out his 12-year prison sentence back home. The arrangement was not perfect. It left unanswered the question of whether the state could convict top mobsters in its own courts. Also, there was the question of whether the Prisons Service could protect Rosenstein inside his cell. Mafia members had already been killed inside prison (one was poisoned covertly the day before he was to testify as a witness for the state), and the stocky kingpin with bloodthirsty enemies would make a prime target. Those questions were swirling in the air on March 28, when "The Wolf" made his much-anticipated return, stepping off an El Al plane at Ben-Gurion Airport, wearing a bulletproof vest and escorted by elite police guards. Only hours earlier, his cousin had been shot dead in Holon. His name was Chen Benayahu. If there is a deeper meaning to the kid's death, then, it is this: that Rosenstein's arrest, although hailed at the time as a turning point in the fight against Israel's mafia, has not led to anything like the rooting out of organized crime. Now that Public Enemy No. 1 is back, in fact, the stakes are higher than ever. At the same time, Israel has more weapons in its crime fighting arsenal than ever before. If the country is to stand a chance, it'll need to use every one of those weapons. And it will need Dudi Cohen, the tough-on-the-mob cop installed this week as inspector-general of a police force in turmoil, to lead the charge in a war that has until now gone wrong more often than right. A PROBLEM TOO BIG TO IGNORE Rosenstein's rise to prominence as a media icon marked the culmination of years of efforts by the authorities to sweep the problem of organized crime under the rug. Despite well-known local mafias like the Pardess Katz Gang and the Ramat Amidar Gang, successive governments tried to treat them as isolated cases. "The government admitted in private that there was organized crime, but it didn't want to admit it in public, because it was embarrassing," says Hebrew University criminology professor Menahem Amir. "When something grows right under your nose, it's obvious that you either didn't know about it or you were inept in fighting it." Embarrassing or not, the underworld is impossible to hide. Today, there is no denying the intimidation and influence wielded by the Abergils, Abutbuls, Alperons, Ohanas, Jarushis, Khariris and others. But long before crime families' wars over the collection of plastic bottles became the stuff of nightly newscasts, the public became familiar with so-called white-collar crime figures through the political exploits of some colorful characters. There was Polish-born Frenchman Shmuel Flatto-Sharon, who tried to escape charges of defrauding French citizens of some $60 million by running for the Knesset. Though he had just arrived and hardly spoke a word of Hebrew, in 1977 Flatto-Sharon improbably won election, gave his support to Likud and promptly voted for a law that prohibited the extradition of Israeli citizens. Although he never was extradited to France, Flatto-Sharon did have his parliamentary immunity lifted in 1979, and he was imprisoned in 1981 for election bribery. Another villain-turned-hero was Gregory Lerner - or, in his Hebrew incarnation, Zvi Ben-Ari. Part of the massive Russian aliya, he left in a hurry in 1990... leaving behind a $20 million grand larceny case. The former journalism student lived a lavish, even flamboyant lifestyle here, buying up businesses and beachfront villas with relish. While Ben-Ari credited hard work for his millions, Russian authorities claimed otherwise. (The mysterious bombing death of a Moscow bank manager on his way to brief Israeli officials on Ben-Ari's dealings in his home country certainly suggested something untoward.) In 1998, a Jerusalem court sentenced Ben-Ari to six years in prison and a NIS 5 million fine for fraud and bribery in connection with an attempt to defraud banks in Israel, Russia and Europe of some $100 million, while allegedly attempting to set up a bank to launder Russian mafia money in Israel. Shortly after his release, Ben-Ari was again convicted of fraud, this time for a bogus deal to supply natural gas. In both cases, he tried to bribe senior government officials. Despite the seriousness of the charges against them, Flatto-Sharon and Ben-Ari managed to find sympathizers here who defended them as benefactors of the poor, unjustly pursued by the establishment for being outsiders. Few people, if any, associated such men with mobsters of the hardened killer variety. That's part of a common misperception about the scope and severity of organized crime, says G. Robert Blakey, who has been at the forefront of fighting the Mafia in the United States. "What you don't realize," he says, "is that with organized crime, you have another government in your midst, imposing its own sovereignty." First of all, Blakey says, "gangsters are murderers - killing not just each other, but anyone who gets in their way. So the mob has capital punishment. It has the power to execute people without going through legal procedures." While Rosenstein and the Abutbuls try to assassinate the Abergils and Alperons (and vice versa), they claim scores of innocent victims as well. In 2005, a Ramle woman and her three-year-old niece were killed in a hail of gunfire meant for crime boss Itzik Abergil. A car bomb that killed an Abergil associate last October also wounded a 10-year-old and an infant. When they're not killing or maiming civilians, mobsters hurt citizens' pockets. "When they infiltrate legitimate businesses, they establish a monopoly price," Blakey continues. "When they organize an industry, it's like a tax." Residents and small business owners in the Negev, for example, have complained of the financial ruin and terror that Beduin "protection" rackets have caused them. On a larger scale, any compromise of labor unions, ports and various industries would cost the average citizen untold millions - possibly billions - of shekels over time. Even indirectly, the mafia costs Israelis. The Trade Bank, for example, collapsed under the weight of a massive embezzlement scandal that was triggered by one man's debts to loan sharks and the operators of illegal casinos. Plainly put, a mafia has implications for nearly every level of society. As Blakey says, "When you pass your statutes, you are saying that you want to have a drug-free society, a gun-free society, a prostitution-free society. A mob undermines your laws by the very fact that it deals in drugs, guns, prostitution, what-have-you. It undermines what you say you want to be like." SOUNDING THE ALARM Finally, in the 1990s, the state began to wake up to the enormity of its mafia problem, with successive heads of the police - Hezi Leder, Assaf Hefetz and Ya'acov Terner - all warning that organized crime was spiraling out of control. After years in which Israel rejected claims that it was a haven for international criminals looking to launder their money, senior police commanders told the Knesset that money laundering was a fact - to the tune of more than $4 billion per year. "Israel is a promised land for money laundering," police investigations chief Yossi Sedbon said in 1999, while the Knesset was considering a law to ban the phenomenon. The lack of any such ban made that kind of thing inevitable. There was so little fear of prosecution that certain Russian crime bosses, an American underworld figure would testify, freely exchanged suitcases full of cash at the swimming pool of a major Tel Aviv hotel. The Law of Return had opened the gates to thousands of Russian mobsters of Jewish descent, but there was no law to allow anyone even to ask where their conspicuously large bank deposits came from. While some bristled at the thought that imposing strict supervision over the banks would scare away investors, Sedbon warned: "Laundering is the basis for more severe offenses. It's a lever for other crimes. It helps [criminals] to penetrate various sectors of the economy and positions of power." Indeed, laundered money was funding an expanding drug empire that grew into a global enterprise. One Israeli was convicted in Florida on 146 counts of conspiracy and money laundering for attempting to disguise $43 million in proceeds from the Cali, Colombia, cocaine cartel. Another was convicted in Tokyo of attempting to smuggle 25,000 tablets of Ecstasy into Japan. Las Vegas attracted several Israelis suspected of drug trafficking and other mob activity. At home, Israel developed burgeoning stolen car rings, underground casinos, illegal arms sales and extortion rackets that police are still struggling to fight. For years, preventing those crimes was nearly impossible because of numerous shortcomings in the penal code. In one high-profile case in 1992, the eccentric American electronics peddler "Crazy Eddie" Antar was found in Israel after two years on the lam from fraud charges in the States. The court hearing his case nearly denied his extradition, though, because it didn't understand America's racketeering laws. "Israel had no idea of how to deal with RICO," the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, said the federal prosecutor who worked the Antar case. "It wasn't on their books." RICO - a law that had by then already brought down the heads of the most powerful mob families in America and in Sicily - had no likeness in Israel's law books. Actually, the country didn't have any of the elements of a proven array of laws aimed at organized crime that were already in place in the US, Italy, Japan and Hong Kong: an anti-racketeering law, an anti-money laundering law, a law allowing the state to seize property used in the commission of a crime and a witness protection program. Legally speaking, Israel was fighting organized crime with its hands tied. A TURNING POINT Ultimately, it was foreign pressure that got things moving in the right direction here. America's Financial Action Task Force put Israel on its blacklist of money laundering havens. More than just a black eye, it endangered the country's "qualified intermediary status." Losing this status would make it almost impossible for Israeli banks to conduct business with American businesses. (The G8 had Israel on a similar blacklist.) With a January 1, 2001, deadline from the Americans looming, the Knesset passed a law in late 2000 that established the Israel Money Laundering Prohibition Authority. It started operating in 2002, receiving and reviewing information from the private sector - mostly banks, but also insurance companies, money changers and other financial entities - regarding suspicious transactions. "Today, the banking sector realizes that... complying with international standards is the only way to survive in the civilized world. Nobody's going to invest in a place where dirty money can control the market," says Yehuda Shaffer, who helped found the authority and now heads it. "We receive 400,000 reports per year of all transactions of NIS 50,000 or more, whether deposited or withdrawn. We also receive reports of transactions of NIS 1 million or more from abroad. And, as of July, we will begin receiving reports of NIS 5,000 transactions and higher from our neighboring countries, which should help track the financial movements of terrorist organizations." The results are starting to show. Of the 400,000 reports the authority receives each year, it refers about 200 to the police, Shaffer says. Of those, a few dozen go to indictment. "As for prevention, I believe we have been very successful," he says. "There has been a serious change in the way banks and other companies in the financial sector apply these laws... But the effectiveness of the battle against organized crime should be measured in three ways: prevention, criminal convictions and amount of money confiscated... To date, some NIS 140 million has been seized, and there is much more money currently being held in temporary seizures." For a country with billions in illegal money floating around, that's just the tip of the iceberg, Shaffer says. Agreeing with other experts interviewed for this article, he says the country still lacks an efficient mechanism for seizing criminals' ill-gotten gains. "The Ze'ev Rosenstein extradition is a prime example of the problem we face," he says. "We can thank the Israel Police and the American police for taking down one of the biggest drug dealers in the world, but the sad fact is they didn't manage to seize any of his money." Almost a decade ago, the police's Sedbon made an identical complaint about Ben-Ari and his luxury villas, which the state failed to liquidate. "This is something that is changing," says Shaffer, "where the emphasis is not only on indicting people, but also confiscating their property... but the truth is that we are still at the beginning of this fight." Other vital changes still in their beginning phases are expanded cooperation between various government agencies and a witness protection program to encourage criminals to testify against each other. A Joint Intelligence Center was inaugurated in March for mutual cooperation and intelligence sharing between the police, Justice Ministry, Tax Authority and Securities Authority. A witness protection program is also slowly coming to fruition. The government voted last year to establish a Witness Protection Authority, and a director was named in January. The program itself, however, is still in its infancy. In 2001, Israel signed onto the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, which is built on the same aforementioned framework of laws that was pioneered in the US. In 2002, the Knesset passed an anti-organized crime law that called for stiffer penalties and allowed the state to seize criminals' property - albeit in limited cases. Police have stepped up their efforts, too, especially since the Rosenstein arrest. The second half of 2004 was particularly successful, with arrests of the Ohana crime family of Kfar Saba, senior crime boss Itzik Abergil of Lod and a NIS 1 billion-a-year money laundering and loan sharking ring in Jaffa. Last year, a task force comprised of police, border police and Tax Authority officials teamed up in a series of raids on homes and banks along the Kinneret that netted 24 members of a Tiberias gang suspected of extorting local vendors, laundering money in local banks and even attempted murder. "This is the solution," a beaming Ch.-Supt. Ami Mualem, head of the Central Investigations Unit of the Amakim District police station, said after the arrest, "to use all of our tools, all of our resources and combine forces to arrest the criminals." Mualem, flush with excitement from the bust, could have been parroting Kofi Annan as he announced the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime in Salerno, Italy, six years before. "[Mafias] are ruthless and the very antithesis of all that we regard as civil. They are powerful, represent an entrenched interest and the clout of a global enterprise worth billions of dollars," said then-secretary-general Annan. "But, my friends, they are not invincible. I repeat, they are not invincible!" AN EARTHQUAKE CALLED ZEILER Sometimes, however, the gangster life is too tempting. Twice in March, the Justice Ministry's Police Investigative Division announced it had caught a cop in the pocket of organized crime. Veteran officer Tiran Zalai stands accused of a litany of charges, including owning a brothel. He is also alleged to have informed criminals in advance of police raids on underground casinos and brothels in exchange for bribes and favors, helping to defraud the Tax Authority and revealing classified information to a crime family. Another, as yet unnamed officer was arrested on suspicion of tipping off members of a local crime family ahead of raids on their casinos in exchange for large sums of money. The arrests came just two months after the Zeiler Report warned that crime syndicates had worked to ensure that people on their payroll were "placed at critical junctions" inside the police to advance the gangsters' interests. The report of the Zeiler Commission was in itself an earthquake that shook the entire police force. Originally intended to probe the alleged bungling of a murder investigation against Negev-area gangsters Sharon and Oded Perinian, who were accused of having a part in the murder of known underworld figure Pinhas Buhbout in 1999, it quickly blew up into an expos of police corruption and incompetence of the highest order. In what was called "the biggest foul-up in police history," the murder investigation dragged on for six years in the Southern District, under the supervision of Asst.-Cmdr. Yoram Levy - who was alleged to have close ties with the Perinian brothers. Inexplicably, one of the men suspected of the Buhbout murder was able to slip from the grasp of police and make his way to Mexico - where, just as he was about to testify in the case on behalf of the state, he was killed. Within six months of being transferred to a different unit, the Buhbout murder case was solved. But disturbing suspicions that a larger problem of police collusion with organized crime remain. Cmdr. Moshe Mizrahi told the Zeiler Commission that the Perinian affair was not unique, and that "there are examples that are no less troubling than this case." The fallout of the Perinian case and the Zeiler Commission's findings has rocked the police. Levy and another senior officer found complicit in the affair were just dismissed from duty by Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter. Insp.-Gen. Moshe Karadi resigned upon the release of the Zeiler Report, and a series of would-be replacements for the position turned it down or were invalidated due to concerns about their own past behavior. How can police fight organized crime now, when the stain of the Zeiler Report has undermined the public's faith in the force? The police refused to comment for this article. However, Dichter, and observers like Hebrew University's Amir, have placed their trust in the new police chief. The appointment of 52-year-old Dudi Cohen, who this week took over as chief of police after heading a special anti-organized crime unit born of the unification of the investigations and intelligence divisions, is seen as a positive step. "Cohen is worth his salt," says Amir, who has advised police on numerous aspects of crime. Furthermore, he says, "I think we can give the police a pretty high grade for their efforts in fighting organized crime. The findings of the Zeiler Commission cast some doubt on that... but it's not as if the police are super corrupt." Amir sees reason for optimism in the adoption of laws and mechanisms that have proven effective in fighting organized crime. He also notes the savvy of the police intelligence unit, whose covert listening devices, he says, are gathering more evidence than ever before and far more than the public knows. "The most guarded place in the whole police is the electronic surveillance department. They have cameras in eyeglasses, voice recorders in the soles of shoes, all kinds of things you wouldn't believe." In addition, Amir says police are succeeding in turning criminals facing lengthy prison terms against their own organizations. "In the end, the crime bosses will fall," he says. Then, he adds ominously, "someone else will take their place."