Rogue traders or spy heroes? Ofer family mystery deepens

By Anshel Pfeffer, June 10, 2011
Sami Ofer: died as scandal raged

Sami Ofer: died as scandal raged

One of the richest families in Israel is at the centre of a controversy involving trade with Israel's deadliest enemy and murky espionage. And, at the height of the scandal, its patriarch has died at the age of 89.

Revelations that some shipping companies owned by the Ofer Brothers were trading with Iran first emerged three weeks ago when the US State Department announced that one of the firms was to be sanctioned and banned from receiving American loans. The US move followed the sale of an oil tanker owned by the Ofer subsidiary to an Iranian-owned shell company.

The announcement caused uproar in Israel, where, in recent years, the Ofers have been held up by politicians and journalists as an example of the unhealthy relationship between government ministers and business tycoons.

In further reports, it was revealed that ships owned by one of the Ofers' tanker companies had visited Iranian ports dozens of times and that the company had made tens of millions of dollars from the oil trade with Israel's enemy.

The companies' spokesmen insisted that all their trade with Iran had been done with the knowledge and authorisation of the government, although the Prime Minister's Office and the Defence Ministry both denied this.

Newspapers have claimed that an Ofer-owned firm helped Mossad use Israeli helicopters in operations over Iran

Newspapers have claimed that an Ofer-owned firm helped Mossad use Israeli helicopters in operations over Iran

At the same time, anonymous sources began feeding the press with tips on co-operation between the Ofers and the Israeli intelligence services that had allegedly taken advantage of the presence of the ships in Iranian ports.

The family's PR campaign reached a climax last Wednesday, when, in a rare public appearance, the former Mossad chief, Meir Dagan, said in a lecture at Tel Aviv university that the Ofers were being unfairly targeted and "had not broken any laws".

Exactly what Israeli intelligence did with the Ofers in Iran is still the subject of speculation, mainly in publications outside Israel, and versions range from the infiltration of agents, through to secretly transporting helicopters that were used on covert operations deep within Iran. "Too much has already been said about this, and we will regret this pointless publicity that has caused damage to Israel's security interests," said one former senior commander in Military Intelligence.

The debate over whether the Ofers are rapacious traders, prepared even to trade with Israel's mortal enemy to make a fast buck, or patriots willing to put their firm at the nation's disposal, was put on hold last Friday when the founder of the family's shipping business, Sami Ofer, died at the age of 89.

Last updated: 2:23pm, June 10 2011