Secret note on Iran ship scandal spooks Israelis

JERUSALEM, June 1 (Reuters) – A secret note passed in parliament to halt a televised oversight committee meeting has stoked a scandal in Israel over a major shipping firm accused by Washington of doing illicit business with Iran.

Ofer Brothers Group, owned by Israel’s richest family, denied wrongdoing after its surprise inclusion on a U.S. State Department blacklist last week, but its refusal to address a slew of media speculation about past links with Israel’s security services only deepened the mystery.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seeing influential compatriots charged with undermining the sanctions against Tehran that he has championed, gave a muted response, saying that his government had approved no deals with the Iranians.

Lawmakers met Tuesday to discuss legal aspects of the case in an economic oversight panel. But the meeting, aired live on television, was adjourned abruptly within minutes after the chairman, Carmel Shama-Hacohen, received a note from an aide.

The freshman legislator, a member of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, went stone-faced and did not reveal its contents.

“Let’s just be clear the note is not from a political figure and not from a business figure,” Shama-Hacohen said, leaving open the possibility of an appeal by the defense establishment.

“It turns out that reality is much more complex, much more complicated and touchy than the average imagination can handle.”

Such obliqueness excited an Israeli media long attuned to signs of a shadow war against Iran and its nuclear program.

The sea is a key arena. According to authorised accounts and espionage exposes, Israeli commercial ships sometimes provide transport or camouflage for intelligence missions, extending the reach of the small, coastal Jewish state in a hostile region.

“ODD JOBS”

“The Ofer Brothers are in a bind because they are a multinational company that can ill afford publicity about them having done ‘odd jobs’ for the country,” said Amnon Abramovitch, commentator for Israel’s top-rated Channel Two television news.

“The Israeli government is also in a bind, because it can ill afford publicity about it having exploited multinational commercial companies for ‘odd jobs’ on behalf of the country.”

Asked by Reuters to comment on such reports, Ofer Brothers said it deferred to government statements about the need to maintain sanctions targeting Iran’s nuclear program.

The U.S. State Department accused Ofer Brothers Group and a Singapore-based affiliate, Tanker Pacific, of selling Iranians a ship for $8.65 million. Ofer Brothers Group denied it. Tanker Pacific has since said its ships have docked lawfully in Iran.

Some Israeli opposition figures have accused the government of trying to avoid bringing Ofer Brothers to account over possible misconduct.

Pressed Wednesday to explain his actions, Shama-Hacohen cited warnings by security officials that the forum might have witnessed statements “that would have caused damage.” He also faulted Ofer Brothers for failing to send a representative.

“Yesterday was their opportunity to come, have their say, and prove their truth,” he told Israel Radio. “They chose to be absent and as long as they do so their credibility will suffer.”

Shama-Hacohen played down the likelihood of significant, continuing collaboration between Ofer Brothers and Israeli intelligence: “The Americans would not have imposed sanctions (on the company) for no reason. The prime minister of Israel would not have disavowed this (affair) in such a sharp and clear manner.”

Gad Shimron, a retired Mossad officer who writes on security affairs, said whether Ofer Brothers had helped or hindered the national interest would emerge in the proceedings against them.

Israel previously threw the book at its citizens who dealt with Iran in violation of global sanctions and local laws.

“If there is a big investigation and prosecution, then this was probably simple malfeasance on the part of the Ofer Brothers,” said Shimron. “If not, draw your own conclusions.”