Alleged trade with Iran embarrasses Israel

Alleged trade with Iran embarrasses Israel
By Jeff Abramowitz May 31, 2011, 15:58 GMT

Tel Aviv - The revelations could hardly be more embarrassing. One of Israel's biggest, richest conglomerates is linked with trade to the Jewish state's arch enemy, the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Ofer Group Holdings, a giant privately-owned group, which owns and operates a large maritime fleet, and is also active in real estate, banking, and high tech, was named by the US State Department as having sanctions slapped on it for its role in the September 2010 sale of a tanker valued at 8.65 million dollars to the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL.)

Also targeted for sanctions was Tanker Pacific, which a state Department spokesman said was a subsidiary of Ofer Group Holdings.

Ofer Holdings Group has vehemently denied the accusations, saying its inclusion in the list of companies targeted for sanctions was an 'unfortunate mistake.'

The Group also denied any business connection with Tanker Pacific, which in turn issued a statement describing as 'not correct' suggestions of 'a direct ownership link' with the Ofer group.

Israel has been among the loudest and most voluble advocates of sanctions on Iran because of its nuclear programme, which the Jewish state sees as an existential threat. The news that a leading Israeli company is may have traded with Iran has greatly damaged Israel's campaign.

The state department's original accusations, made on May 24, was overshadowed by a speech Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave that day to the US Congress. By Monday and Tuesday, however, it was dominating the news flow, after calls by lawmakers for an investigation into the affair, and a discussion by a parliamentary committee.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was also forced to intervene, and issue a statement denying a claim, reported in the Yediot Ahranot daily and attributed to 'sources close to the Ofer group' that the docking of tankers in Iran to purchase crude oil was 'was with the approval and authority of official echelons in Israel.'

As the affair snowballed, with revelations that ships linked - accurately or not - to Ofer Holdings Group had docked in Iran, speculation mounted that the ships may have been engaged less in commercial activities than in espionage ones.

Conspiracy theorists could use this speculation to explain comments by Meir Dagan, a former head of the Israeli Mossad Intelligence Agency, who said coverage of the affair was exaggerated and 'blown out of all porportion.'

'More is being made of this than actually happened,' he said.

Adding even more ammunition to this theory is the fact that a parliamentary committee meeting called to discuss the affair ended abruptly after 10 minutes, when the committee chairman received a note.

He refused to identify who the note came from, 'but stated that it wasn't from a political or business related source, indicating that the author may have been security related,' the Jerusalem Post daily reported.

It could also explain why the Israel government seems determined not to go to bat for Ofer Holdings - a fear that information best kept secret could come out.

It is, however equally possible that the Israeli government's reticence stems from the embarrassment of discovering that its campaign for sanctions against Iran is being undermined by one of Israel's most prestigious companies.

Israeli law prohibits trade with hostile countries, and if the allegations against the Ofer Brothers are substantiated by hard fact, the Group can expect to face legal ramifications. An Israeli businessman, Nahum Manbar, was given a 16-year-prison sentence in 1998 for selling to Iran materials which could be used to make chemical weapons.

Commentator Boaz Bismuth admitted Tuesday that it was possible that the whole affair was a 'lot less sexy' than the speculation indicated.

'Maybe also in this case,' he wrote in the Israel HaYom daily, 'everything begins and end with money.'

Bismuth added his voice to the legislators who have called for a criminal investigation to be launched.

'It is impossible,' he said, 'to demand on the one hand that the world toughen its tone against the regime of the ayatollahs, and on the other hand to display leniency toward an Israeli company which has traded . directly or indirectly, with Iran.'

Alleged trade with Iran embarrasses Israel - Monsters and Critics

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