Pardon Us

Allyn Fisher-Ilan - The Jerusalem Post - March 4, 2001

What does the willingness of so many prominent Israelis to help fugitive US financier Marc Rich win a presidential pardon say about about this country's morality, asks Allyn Fisher-Ilan - and what is the potential fallout?

The Israeli connection to Bill Clinton's controversial presidential pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich first grabbed media attention in the days after Clinton left office. But the link was raised only briefly in the first congressional hearing on the topic, as the inquiry focused on how well- or ill-advised Clinton was before making the decision; whether he was influenced by political donations; or whether he simply suffered a bout of bad judgment.

But with Clinton's citing - in an op-ed piece in The New York Times last week - of Prime Minister Ehud Barak's encouragement, and the letters of support he received from many prominent Israelis (and American Jews) as part of his logic for granting the pardon, the Israeli angle re-emerged.

Jim Hoagland, noted Washington Post columnist, didn't mince words last week writing about the Israeli role in the Rich affair. Wrote Hoagland: "Mr. Barak and other Israeli leaders seem not to have seriously considered the risks they were taking in joining a partisan pardon effort planned with the care of a covert operation. They set themselves up to serve as an alibi in an American political controversy. Their actions call attention in an unfavorable way to the intimate political connection that exists between Israel and America."

Rich, formerly one of the US's 10 most wanted fugitives, is a Belgian-born American-Jewish commodities trader accused of bilking the government out of some $48 million in taxes, and of having traded illegally with Iran during the hostage crisis of the early 1980s. In 1983, he fled to Switzerland where he now lives, although he also holds Israeli citizenship and visits here often.

Rich was one of 140 people pardoned by Clinton in a whirlwind maneuver just before he left office late in January. Congress is currently investigating whether Clinton granted the pardon as a favor in exchange for donations to his library and the Democratic Party. New York federal prosecutor Mary Jo White is also probing the issue, in addition to the pardon given Rich's partner, Pincus Green.

Topping a list of dozens said to have recommended that Rich be pardoned are Barak, Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, former Mossad head Ya'acov Shavit, and directors of museums, hospitals and other institutions.

Lobbyists and officials in Washington say that while the Israel connection will ultimately do little to harm Israeli-US bilateral ties, Israel's image has certainly suffered a significant blow.

Morris Amitay, head of Washington PAC, a pro-Israel political-action committee that donates money to political campaigns, says the Rich pardon "hasn't helped Israel's image at all. Fortunately, except for Olmert, most of the people involved are associated with the outgoing government. Therefore, as far as US-Israel ties go, it won't have much effect."

But Amitay and other observers in Washington do suggest that the Rich pardon could serve Israel's detractors, who believe Jewish money controls centers of power in the US capital. The scandal could lead to an erosion of support by Americans for Israel, he adds, though if Israel appears battered by Palestinian violence, support for the Jewish state is likely to remain high.

"It will be interesting to see when the new polls come out with whom Americans' sympathies lie," says Amitay.

Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, calls the Israeli link "unfortunate. A significant part of that blame has to be put at the doorstep of president Clinton, who tried to use the issue of Israeli support for the pardon of Marc Rich as somewhat of a justification for what we consider an unjustifiable cause. But no doubt this has cast a pall - not just a pall, but has somewhat tarnished the image of the State of Israel."

RICH HAS been an enormous benefactor to Israeli institutions; since 1980, he has donated tens of millions of dollars to numerous causes, ranging from museums and hospitals to social-welfare programs. He is also said to have helped the Mossad, and Shavit is quoted as having praised him for helping in "the rescue and evacuation of Jews from enemy countries," and in the search for missing soldiers. Rich was also reportedly instrumental in obtaining needed oil supplies for Israel, including from Arab sources, in the 1970s.

While Barak has denied receiving any campaign funding from Rich, last week Olmert admitted that the financier donated $25,000 to his first mayoral campaign eight years ago.

Although many Israelis feel they have reason to be thankful for Rich's assistance over the years, not everyone is comfortable with the virtual absence of a public debate here over the political and ethical implications of a scandal which could have searing repercussions on the country's relationship with the US, including fund-raising by American Jews. There are even fears of a potential antisemitic backlash stemming from the probe into Rich's pardon, which could also ultimately damage Israel's relationship with the world's largest Diaspora community.

Compounding the antisemitic threat is a new aspect of the probe opened last week, into allegations that Clinton may have commuted fraud sentences against four Hassidic leaders in New Square, New York, as payback for their support for Hillary Clinton in the November's Senate elections.

"I don't pretend to be able to judge whether Marc Rich deserved a pardon or not, or whether he is guilty or innocent," says strategic expert Yossi Alpher, former director of the Israel office of the American Jewish committee. "But the people who wrote letters specifically for him, or who made phone calls urging that he be pardoned, did not exercise sound judgment with regard to the broader context of Israeli-American relations. A whole list of people exercised poor judgment, and this should concern us all.

While Alpher doesn't feel this scandal "will bring about a collapse of American-Israeli relations, it adds to a cumulative list of grievances on the part of the American establishment [against Israel]. We don't need this."

Among the repercussions Alpher foresees is the possibility that Israel's involvement in the Rich affair will make it even more difficult than it already is to win a pardon for Jonathan Pollard, an American imprisoned since 1985 for spying for Israel. From a humanitarian standpoint, that would make the recommendations on Rich's behalf an even more questionable move.

"This is not a Jew in distress, or a man we had to save from anything. We weren't acting to keep Rich out of jail; he's living very well in Switzerland."

Alpher feels "there should be more of a debate" in Israel over the issue. "We're not talking about corruption here, but insensitivity, and ignorance of the way the American system works - demonstrated by the very people who should know how that system works, because it's absolutely vital for us."

The issue has clearly been overshadowed by the raging intifada and Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon's efforts to put together a new coalition. Yet the controversy may also be missing from the local headlines since so few Israelis seem comfortable about coming forward to criticize this country's role in winning him a pardon.

Asked to comment on the ethical ramifications of the affair, many notable figures not even connected with the Rich affair declined to respond, including a number of legal experts. Even the Movement for Quality Government accepted money from Rich.

The list of groups helped by Rich includes the liberal-leaning New Israel Fund, which accepted his assistance for a project for rights for the handicapped over the course of a year. However, the fund, which focuses its work on social and civil-rights issues, declined to accept further assistance from Rich last year after being warned of his background by American members, according to Eliezer Ya'ari, the fund's director in Israel. It was one of a list of decisions made to reject contributions from questionable sources, such as tobacco companies, Ya'ari explains.

"As an Israeli, I was impressed that the American executive members were so much more aware of this issue than the Israeli side," says Ya'ari. He admits that the issue underscores a dilemma faced by many fund-raising groups, regarding how far the sources of a contribution should be investigated. The New Israel Fund rejects money from partisan sources, or from groups with negative records on social and environmental issues. Ya'ari wonders how deeply any recipient delves into the sources of all its contributions, unless they are high-profile criminal suspects.

"There's some hypocrisy involved in criticizing Israelis for accepting money from Rich. We try to work with the utmost transparency. But can you tell me whether every single contributor to, say, an American university is investigated before the money is accepted?"

Alpher reports that he recently advised a non-profit group to which he belongs against accepting a contribution offer from the Rich Foundation, before the scandal over his pardon erupted. He remarks how he said at a meeting that "this is tainted money, and this could embarrass us with American Jews. Nobody else at the table seemed to have had the slightest knowledge of Rich's background, nor were they impressed with my argument."

In fact, says Alpher, Avner Azoulai, the head of the Rich Foundation in Israel and purportedly a former Mossad operative "says he has received twice as many appeals for money as previously" from people who hadn't heard of Rich before.

"It shows you their ethical order of priorities."

SOME Israelis feel that seeking a pardon for Rich was not only justified, but that he is actually owed more thanks by a country he has helped a great deal over the years.

Raya Jaglom, president of the Israeli Friends of Tel Aviv University and honorary vice president of World WIZO, unapologetically defends Rich and the Israeli support he received. She ticks off a list of contributions made by the Rich Foundation in Israel, totaling more than $67m. Some estimates of Rich's assistance to Israeli causes run as high as $80m. Recently Rich financed the opening of a wing for Israeli art named for his daughter Gabrielle, who died in 1996 of leukemia. He has also given more than $15m. for cancer research in Israel and the US, Jaglom says, and to other medical and social causes.

"They say we Jews have a good memory. So why are all these people he helped remaining silent? He is in trouble in America, but this doesn't interest me. He gave us a lot. He became kind of a social-welfare department for Israel. What hasn't he done? You name it and he gave to it. So where is everybody? Maybe they don't have to defend him, but they can speak up for how much he has helped us in so many ways," says Jaglom.

She feels it would be hypocritical to even question accepting money from someone like Rich, regardless of how he may have obtained the funds.

"I have never checked into the millions of dollars I've received from individuals over the years to build such things as schools and boarding schools."

Jaglom notes a recent $1.5m. contribution received to build an old-age home. "Did I ask where the money came from? No, I was happy [the woman] wanted to donate it and was generous enough to understand that we need it."

Ya'acov Chisdai, a lawyer and social commentator who has written several books examining Israeli society, remarks that the widespread willingness to accept funds from Rich without asking many questions reflects in part "our forgiving attitude toward tax cheats." "Americans regard someone accused of not paying tens of millions of dollars in taxes as someone who stole out of their own pockets; in Israel we don't react this way.

He also notes that this country has a long history of accepting contributions without questioning whether the source of the funds involved any violations of the law abroad.

"Apparently there's an element of galut [Jewish exile] thinking here, that cheating the goyim is all right. It is very entrenched in our economic culture," Chisdai says.

NOAM ZOHAR, a New York-born philosophy lecturer at Bar-Ilan University, also attributes the rallying of Israeli leaders behind Rich to a residual but outmoded "tribal attitude" that stems from the centuries Jews spent as outcasts in exile.

"There is certainly a traditional attitude harking back to the time we lived in exile, when the non-Jewish legal system was perceived as unjust and, in general, antisemitic - in any case, not a place where Jews could count on getting a fair deal," Zohar says.

"Under those circumstances, it was perhaps natural for Jews to flock together and protect each other. Unfortunately, this attitude, just like other aspects of galut mentality, have carried over into the State of Israel. Many of us have not internalized the fact that we are a sovereign state and that other states, including the US, have systems of justice which are at least as fair as ours and that this tribal attitude no longer has any place."

Zohar takes issue with those rabbis who feel the Torah or Jewish tradition sanction sympathizing with criminals or accepting their assistance openly and without question.

In cases where criminals have been permitted to "redeem" themselves by giving to a synagogue, generally "there was always a problem in making their names known publicly by labeling their gifts, because that may have a bad educational influence on the community," Zohar says. "The same may be true here," in the case of Rich.

Still, says Chisdai, to openly ask for a pardon for Rich shows "how Israel is lacking in political norms of behavior."

To indicate the decline in political morality among the Israeli leadership he draws a comparison with the case of Meyer Lansky, the famed American-Jewish gangster who tried to immigrate to Israel in the early 1970s. Although Lansky had used his influence on the New York docks to expedite illegal arms-shipments to Israel during the War of Independence, and had hosted Israeli fund-raisers in his illegal casinos, Lansky's bid for citizenship here was rejected by the government.

"If that's how Lansky was treated back then," notes Chisdai, "today, when we are no longer in a war for our survival, when we have some international standing and commitments, the question is why should we take assistance from people based on illegal funds, and then get involved in moral obligations to help them?

"Unfortunately, these are questions that end up having to being addressed by our leaders, without them being subject to any public debate."

With reporting by Janine Zacharia in Washington D.C.

The forgivable pardon

- Maia Ridberg talks with Israel Aircraft Industries founder Al Schwimmer, who also received a pardon from Bill Clinton for his role in helping Israel win independence

For his pardon, financier Marc Rich lobbied US president Bill Clinton, enlisted the support of top Jewish and Israeli leaders, and reportedly spent millions of dollars.

In contrast, Al Schwimmer, also am to secure his pardon.

"I guess I should be happy," says the 83-year-old US-Israeli citizen and near-legendary founder of the Israel Aircraft Industries, now living in semi-retirement in Tel Aviv. "I've lived most of my life without a pardon, so don't expect me to throw a party now."

Schwimmer, an ardent Zionist, was convicted in 1950 of violating the US Neutrality Act for smuggling airplanes to forces fighting for the establishment of Israel. He refused to sign the Justice Department papers necessary for requesting a pardon, because it required him to admit wrongdoing.

"I was never ready to do that," he says. "I did what I did because I believe in the Jewish cause."

Schwimmer traces his strong Zionist feelings to World War II, when he was flying with the US Air Force transport command in Europe and witnessed first-hand the aftermath of the Holocaust. "It left a deep impression on me," he says. In 1947, after returning home to California, he decided to aid the efforts to create a Jewish state. Together with fellow American Zionist Hank Greenspun and former Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek, at that time the Hagana agent in the US, he acquired airplanes and weaponry and smuggled them to Israel, disregarding the US embargo on arms sales to the country.

Schwimmer and Greenspun were caught by the federal authorities. They were fined $10,000 and stripped of their civil rights - which meant they couldn't vote, work in a US government office, or serve in the military reserves. Schwimmer was arrested and convicted of illegally exporting airplanes.

Schwimmer immigrated to Israel in 1951, after then-prime minister David Ben-Gurion visited his aircraft maintenance company in Burbank, California, and invited him to start a similar industry in Israel. From those modest beginnings, Schwimmer built the IAI into one of the foundations of the country's economy and defense establishment - although he never learned to speak Hebrew fluently. "I came here because I wanted to come here, and be a part of this from the beginning," he says.

In the 1980s, Schwimmer again achieved notoriety for arms smuggling when he emerged as one of the brokers in the Iran-Contra scandal, the ill-fated attempt to trade US and Israeli weaponry for American hostages held by pro-Iranian Moslem fundamentalists in Lebanon. Schwimmer was not punished for his role in the affair.

WHILE Greenspun had sought and received a pardon from president John F. Kennedy in the 1960s, Schwimmer never bothered making a similar effort while living in Israel.

"It didn't bother me," Schwimmer says. "I even visited the States often, because of my aviation business."

The pardon Schwimmer did not seek came anyway, despite his apathy. His friend Hank Greenspun's son is a close friend of Clinton's, and in addition to being a frequent visitor to the White House has donated tens of thousand of dollars to his political campaigns.

Two months ago, Greenspun told Schwimmer that he would request a pardon for him from Clinton. Greenspun was firm, Schwimmer recalls, even though he warned Greenspun that he would not sign papers admitting wrongdoing for helping the Zionist cause.

In the end, Schwimmer achieved a true victory. He received the pardon without admitting it was wrong to help the emerging Israeli state. He maintained his commitment to Zionism, and his self-respect, since he personally never lobbied nor bribed anyone.

"It's not the Rich story," says his wife Rena.

With regard to his pardon, Schwimmer is not terribly excited. "Of course, now I can vote in the US elections. I can even have a job as a mailman."