Worldwide Webs: Mafia's Reach Grows

Russian Crime Wave: Israel serves as 'back door' to America

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

With pristine beaches tucked beneath a ridge of cliffs that seem to block out the world, this small Mediterranean city has grown into into a quiet resort popular with retirees.

It is not the kind of place where one might expect Alex Dubitsky, a Russian immigrant who ran a slot-machine gambling business, to get shot in broad daylight - apparently by other underworld criminals.

Netanya natives complain that their once-sleepy community has changed since it absorbed 40,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and that police aren't doing enough to curb such violence.

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But the police say they have bigger fish to fry, such as Grigori Lerner, an alleged Russian Mafia kingpin whose trial for bank fraud and bribery charges began this week. While the Lerner case is perhaps the most high-profile here to date, crime experts say there is a more general problem of Russian expatriates using Israel as a base for international money laundering and trying to infiltrate or influence Israeli economic, political, and security establishments. And their reach does not stop at the border.

The tentacles of organized crime have spread from Russia over much of Europe and as far away as Israel and the US, as lawlessness replaced the iron rule of communism.

"Organized crime has flourished since the fall of communism in Russia," says Simcha Landau, a criminology professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "Russia plays an important role in organized crime all over the world."

Reports have linked the Russian Mafia to crimes in the south of France, Britain, and the Caribbean.

From money-laundering operations in Tel Aviv to murders in the Brighton Beach neighborhood of Brooklyn, the fingerprints of the Russian Mafia are evident, Dr. Landau says.

Russian organized crime groups have also formed links with Colombian drug dealers, trading guns for cocaine, The Washington Post reported last month.

Many Russian crime figures here are well-connected with counterparts in the United States, police say, and some Russians came here specifically because they saw Israel as a window to America.

Mr. Dubitsky's murder in May points to a much bigger problem for Israeli law enforcement officials worried about serious crime among such immigrants, who now represent about 1 in every 4 residents in this city north of Tel Aviv.

Israeli police say that they have been increasing their level of cooperation with US and other international law-enforcement agencies and have been expanding their relatively new network of liaison officers around the world to help in their fight against organized crime. Israel's minister of police recently made a week-long visit to Russia to step up joint anticrime efforts and to gather more evidence in the case against Mr. Lerner.

Lerner, who was arrested in May as he was about to leave Israel for the US, faces a combination of fraud and bribery charges, including accusations that he defrauded banks in Russia, Europe, and Israel. Also known as Zvi Ben-Ari, the Hebrew name he adopted when he came here in 1989, Lerner is wanted for $85 million in bank fraud in Russia.

Police say he also set up shell companies and other scams in Russia and Europe and used Israel as a base for laundering money earned in international criminal activity.

Influence-buying

Jacking up interest in the case, police say Lerner and other top Mafia figures tried to buy influence during last year's national elections by offering bribes to parties for meetings with top candidates. Several top officials across the Israeli political spectrum have been questioned in connection with Lerner's prosecution.

Reformists say that it is relatively easy to buy influence in Israel because there are few restrictions on contributions to individual candidates, and limits on donations to parties apply only nine months before election day.

But magnifying the international impact of organized crime in Israel are its even more liberal banking laws - which police and other critics say make money laundering easy - and high interest rates.

The lax attitude stems from Israel's establishment almost 50 years ago, when it was desperate to attract new immigrants and didn't want to put bureaucratic barriers in the way of incoming capital. Police sources say $2.5 billion to $4 billion in criminal money has been brought into Israel since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"Now you can bring money here, deposit it wherever you like, no questions asked," says a Jerusalem-based police ministry special investigator of international crime.

Many say the time for that kind of approach has long passed. A parliamentary banking committee plans to introduce legislation during the next session to prevent money laundering.

As law-enforcement officials here see it, most of the organized crime in Israel is an outgrowth of the Soviet Union's breakup in 1991. Many in the former communist republics looked for economic opportunities in America, while others joined the mass aliya, or immigration, of Russian Jews to Israel. Taking advantage of Israel's "Law of Return," some Russians obtained fake Jewish documents to gain Israeli citizenship - either to profit here or as a future ticket to America.

'Back door to America'

"Suddenly, it became very lucrative to be Jewish, and Israel was seen as a channel for those criminals who wanted to use it as a back door to get to America," says a Jerusalem police inspector, who requested anonymity.

American immigration officials say there are no quotas that would make it easier to get to the US from Israel as opposed to Russia. But last year, for example, about 3,000 US immigration visas were given out here to Israelis and Palestinians.

Slightly more than twice that number were given out in Moscow, which serves a vastly larger population including all of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.

Israel says the Mafia here does not threaten to have the kind of impact it does in Russia, where officials estimate that 50 percent of the economy is based on criminal activity.

But police officials say that attempts to infiltrate Israel's political and economic system represent a "strategic threat," especially because Mafia figures have been hiring former security or police officers to learn how Israeli investigators operate.

"This is the most dangerous for us," says Gen. Avi Cohen, head of intelligence at the Police Ministry in Jerusalem. "It makes it much more difficult for us to deal with them if they know how we work."

Russian immigrant advocates such as former refusenik Natan Sharansky say all the clamoring about the Mafia has led to the tarring of the newest Israelis as criminals and prostitutes. To avoid feeding the stereotype, one lawmaker from Mr. Sharanky's Israel B'Aliya Party is trying to make it illegal for newspapers to publish the birthplace of Israelis in stories about arrests.

A Russian crime wave?

Hebrew University criminologist Menachem Amir says that 5,000 to 6,000 of the 750,000 immigrants who came here after the breakup of the Soviet Union are involved in criminal activity, hardly a ratio that justifies typecasting all Russians as scofflaws.

But Mr. Amir, an adviser to the Israeli police, also estimates that 90 percent of the prostitutes here are Russian - many of them brought over by organized prostitution rings - and that most of the money brought here from Russia was criminally tainted. Moreover, violent felonies have doubled since the Russians started coming en masse in 1989.

Yoram Sheftel, the attorney who is defending Lerner, says that the there is no problem with Russian crime here, just a bogeyman being fabricated by the police and hyped by the media. He says that his client's prolonged incarceration - and the Israeli minister's trip to Russia - show that the police were scrambling for evidence to make a case.

"He's not a suspect in Russia, and [the charges] he's accused of here are all extremely minor matters, just white-collar misdemeanors," he says.

"The case they have against him is meaningless. The arrest was widely reported, and now the police find themselves in a prestige problem because they cannot substantiate these allegations."

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