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Worldwide Webs: Mafia's Reach Grows

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

By Ilene R. PrusherSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 8, 1997



NETANYA, ISRAEL

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.

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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.

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.