July 3, 1997
A Russian Godfather?
To the general Israeli public, the "Lerner Affair" reveals the frightening tentacles of the Russian mafia in Israel, and the danger it poses to this country's economic and political system. To many in the Russian immigrant community, however, the Lerner Affair is a case of harassment -- a high-profile attempt by the established Israeli "elite" to cast all Russian immigrants as criminals.
Gregory Lerner, who immigrated to Israel in 1990 and is alleged to be the leading Russian mafia figure in Israel, was arrested seven weeks ago. He is suspected of having defrauded Russian banks out of $85 million, and of trying to bribe Israeli bank officials and politicians to expand his multimillion-dollar economic interests in Israel. Suspicions that he was involved in the murder of a Russian banker and in an attempt to murder another are reportedly no longer on the police's investigations agenda.
More than 120 Israeli police detectives are working on the Lerner case and are being assisted -- many Russian immigrants would say, "deliberately misled" -- by their Russian counterparts. In his bail hearings, Lerner has been brought into court in a bulletproof vest because police fear that somebody might want to kill him rather than risk the possibility that he will implicate others.
Three Israeli government ministers and seven Knesset members, along with other politicians, are reportedly on the police's list of people to be questioned in the affair. Some are seen only as sources of information; others may end up as suspects.
Labor Party Knesset member Nissim Zvili, an information source, was recently questioned about Lerner's offer to give Labor free campaign broadcast time on Russian-language cable TV during last year's election campaign. Zvili told police that he turned down the offer because it was against the law to accept it.
Industry and Trade Minister Natan Sharansky, leader of the Yisrael Ba'Aliyah party, has admitted to having accepted a $100,000 donation from Lerner three years ago for "Olami," a Russian immigrant welfare association that Sharansky headed. Olami was the organizational core that grew into Yisrael Ba'Aliyah. Later, however, Sharansky reportedly refused Lerner's entreaties to help him start a bank in Israel, and he distanced himself from Lerner.
Nevertheless, Sharansky reportedly is on the police's list of future interviewees, as are Labor Knesset members Ehud Barak, Haim Ramon and Sonia Landver, Likud Knesset member Michael Kleiner, and Yisrael Ba'Aliyah Knesset members Yuri Stern and Roman Bronfman.
Israeli police have warned for some time that the wave of Russian immigrants which began in 1989 included some highly placed members of the Russian mafia. The entry of these criminals into Israel, along with the no-questions-asked policy of Israeli banks toward suspicious money, made this country a favored spot for money laundering. The Russian mafia made big plans for Israel, police say.
Two years ago, police Inspector-General Assaf Hefetz, after consulting with police in Russia and Ukraine, said, "They [the Russian mafia] are trying to exploit their resources by backing candidates in the coming elections [in Israel] and gain a position of power."
Yet much of the influential Russian-language press in Israel is playing up the harassment angle.
Stern has called the investigation of Lerner "ridiculous" and has claimed that it is a glaring example of the Israeli establishment's discrimination against Russians. He warns that such discrimination will boomerang against the establishment and give Yisrael Ba'Aliyah a tremendous protest vote.
"If this treatment continues, we'll double our [current seven] Knesset seats in the next election," he said.
Lerner's home in Israel is a heavily guarded villa in the seaside city of Ashkelon. He traveled to his office in Tel Aviv in the company of bodyguards. He claims to have started out in Israel with $16, and once told a local Ashkelon newspaper: "The stories connecting me to the Russian mafia were invented out of thin air. I have businesses around the world, and, naturally, there are those who, for reasons of competition or greed, will try to hurt me and my family. There is no such thing [in Israel] as the Russian mafia, just as there is no Hungarian or Romanian mafia."
While few Russian immigrants are prepared to assume that Lerner is innocent, the great majority complain that the case has fed the widespread Israeli notion that all Russian-immigrant businessmen are mafiosi.
"Nearly all the Russian mafiosi who came to Israel have gone back because, with all due respect, Israel was too small-time for them," Kontorer said.
Simon Feldman, a journalist for the Russian-immigrant newspaper Novosti Nedeli, said that Israelis in general and Israeli police in particular don't understand that much of the evidence against Lerner coming out of Russia is tainted.
It is unknown what effect the case will have on the presence of the Russian mafia in Israel. For now, most speculation involves its political and social effects.
While Stern's assessment of the case's value in Knesset seats was likely a hopeful exaggeration, Kontorer, a Russian Israeli journalist, said that the affair "isn't hurting Yisrael Ba'Aliyah's popularity at all." As for how the Russian-immigrant community will come to view Lerner, this won't be known until his legal fate is decided.
Kontorer, who thinks that the evidence against Lerner is weak, guesses that the businessman may eventually get convicted on a minor charge, or possibly even escape indictment altogether, which would leave him "not badly off" in the court of Russian-immigrant public opinion. "But if he is brought to trial and found innocent," Kontorer said, "then he's going to come out of this thing a hero."
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