There was drama in today's Knesset Economics Committee session on the Ofer-Iran affair. Committee chairman Carmel Shama had been deliberating whether or not to hold the meeting behind closed doors, and eventually decided to open it up to the public. However, a few minutes after the session began, Shama received a mysterious note and immediately called for the press and media to leave as the session had to be held behind closed doors.
The reason was apparently the fear of sensitive security information being revealed. Only yesterday, former Mossad director Meir Dagan said that the Ofer affair had "been blown out of proportion," and hinted that the Ofer family may have been acting in the service of the state.
Up until the start of the session, the various consequences of holding it were examined, with the balance between an open discussion and the fear of possible damage in mind," Shama said after the discussion was closed. "During the session, it was decided to halt it. All the reports that some instruction was received to stop the session are baseless."
The Knesset Economic Committee session began at 3 pm, and the Ofer family did not send a representative. "We seek to stress that we respect yesterday's announcements by the Prime Minister's Office and the Ministry of Defense," the Ofer family said. "Statements by so-called confidants of the family about this affair have been made without the family being consulted, are certainly unacceptable to us, and we regret that they have been made."
"Not everything can be discussed openly," Shama said at the start of the session. He asked about the nature of the commercial ties of the coampnies controlled by the Ofer family with Iran, and whether there were other companies that traded with Ira, but hurriedly cut short the discussion after he received the note. "The situation is complicated and sensitive," he said.
Committee members expressed anger and frustration at the session being closed. MK Nissim Zeev of Shas said, "With all due respect, we are not at a police station," while MK Rober Tiviaev of Kadima called for an in-depth investigation of the affair. For his part, Shama said that the note he received had no connection with the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
As mentioned, in an unusual and unexpected public statement during a conference in Jerusalem last night, former Mossad director Meir Dagan said that the Ofer affair had "been blown out of proportion". He added, "The assault on them seems overdone to me."
Mystery is growing over the Ofer family's forbidden relations with Iran. Sammy and Idan Ofer scrupulously kept their silence today about the conduct of their shipping companies in Iran, despite sanctions banning any oil-related business with the country.
An aide to the family told "Globes", "Its true that ships of Tanker Pacific, which Sammy Ofer partly owns, docked at Iranian ports. This activity involved no international problem. There was no violation of the sanctions imposed on Iran because of its nuclear program, nor was there any violation of Israeli law. Israeli officials knew about the dockings, and it can be assumed that it was convenient for them to avert their eyes."
Sources close to the Ofer family have not been indifferent to Dagan's unexpected remarks, and they added to the sense of mystery about the affair. Criticizing the prime minister's conduct in the crisis and the lack of support from government authorities, they claim that Ofer family feels abandoned by the government in the face of the media onslaught about the family's forbidden ties with Iran. A source said, "They served their purpose and they're no longer needed."
This morning, the Ofer family's media advisor Moti Sharf released a statement on its behalf to clarify remarks quoted by family associates in the past few days. Sharf said, "We wish to emphasize that we respect the announcements by the Prime Minister's Office and the Ministry of Defense with regard to remarks by alleged associates of the family in this affair, which were without the knowledge of the family and were definitely not acceptable by it. We regret that they spoke thus."
"Questions must be asked"
Belying Dagan's hints and the remarks by family aides in the past few days, which try to create the impression of ostensible involvement to promote numerous important national issues, the defense establishment today announced that the Ofer family had no authority to act in any way in Iran.
"Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already said that he was unaware of any permission for Israeli business of any kind in Iran," a source close to the affair told "Globes".
Nonetheless, officials at departments subject to the Prime Minister's Office were ordered to thoroughly examine whether any such permission was given in the past to the Ofer family. "Extensive examinations are underway in this matter to find out whether they received permits or authorization in the past. The person examining is going back years, the work raises the need to locate the relevant figures who must be asked some questions. One thing is clear at the moment: we have found nothing that contradicts what is completely clear to us - they had no permission to operate in Iran," the same official told "Globes".
The Ministry of Defense nonetheless reiterated today that it was not involved in the affair. It said that its departments were only responsible for overseeing defense exports. From the beginning of the affair, when the US State Department announced sanctions against the Ofer family, ministry sources have said that the ministry's professional staff was not updated on the case and that they had no intention of intervening in it.
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on May 31, 2011
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