An annual report compiled by French police on organized crime in the country lists “French-Israeli crime” as one of the most significant organized crime trends of the year 2018.
The 250-page internal police report, which The Times of Israel has seen parts of, was published in July by SIRASCO, the branch of the French police charged with collecting data and intelligence on organized crime.
The report lists French-Israeli online scams as one of five significant organized crime trends for the year 2018.
The other four are: the persistence of killings among crime gangs; the spread of narcotics-related organized crime to mid-sized cities; a rise in prostitution in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods; and French police continuing to dismantle cocaine-trafficking networks via French Guiana.
In a section entitled “French-Israeli scammers” the report describes dual French-Israeli citizens, most of them in Israel, carrying out internet scams targeting victims in France, and largely going unpunished.
“While not numerous in comparison with other organized crime groups affecting France, the economic damage they cause, whether to European governments (carbon VAT tax) or particular companies (the CEO scam or advertising insert scam) amounts to many billions of euros.”
The report goes on to describe how these alleged criminals are able to live large, hobnob with the rich and famous, and evade justice.
“Functioning on the principle of communal, even familial solidarity, these scammers have not hesitated to interact with major crime figures or to work with Chinese crime networks in Paris. They implemented several lucrative scams in the 2000s that have allowed them to live the high life, frequent poker tables and flaunt their relationships with show business personalities and politicians so as to minimize their chances of getting caught or facing justice.
“Many of these white-collar criminals have themselves been the victims of [violent] extortion or settling of scores (notably Sammy Souied who was murdered in 2010). Others have taken advantage of their French-Israeli dual nationality to choose to live in Israel and thereby evade punishment.”
While the majority of immigrants to Israel from France are law-abiding, the report suggests that a subset of such immigrants are engaged in crime and are using Israel as a safe haven from French justice. If this accusation is accurate, it raises the question of how these individuals were able to enter Israel in the first place, and what kind of vetting procedures the Israeli government puts in place.
Several recent news events corroborate the French police claim that some French immigrants to Israel are evading justice, with some continuing their criminal activities from their new homes.
On September 21 of this year, Vanessa Abittan won the Israeli television cooking competition “Master Chef.” It later emerged that the impeccably dressed, effervescent mother of six was married to a fugitive from French justice. Her husband Eddie Abittan had been convicted in absentia by France for two instances of a fraudulent scheme that together netted over $400 million. The two schemes were part of a larger $1.6 billion scam known as carbon-VAT fraud, carried out in 2008 and 2009, in part from Israel, via the internet. The fraud has been dubbed “the swindle of the century” in France. Abittan was tried and convicted twice, in 2016 and 2017, but never showed up for his trials.
Vanessa Abittan during her first appearance on ‘Master Chef’ (Channel 12 screenshot)
In an interview to the French investigative magazine Mediapart, Abittan’s lawyer said that for his client, “Israel is a bit like an open prison, in which he is locked. He cannot travel.”
Meanwhile, in mid-October, Israeli police arrested four men — two French speakers and two Italian speakers — according to the criminal justice news site Posta. The men were reportedly arrested at the behest of Norwegian police and suspected of impersonating the CEO of a Norwegian energy company and persuading employees of the company to wire 15 million euros to a bank account they allegedly controlled in Hong Kong. One of the arrested men was French-Israeli citizen Mike Touil, who denies any wrongdoing. The strange aspect of Touil’s arrest, however, is that Touil was sentenced in absentia in February to five years in French prison for his own role in the carbon-VAT scam.
Despite his conviction, he was living freely in Israel at the time of his arrest last month.
Internet crimes allegedly perpetrated by French-Israelis are a frequently covered topic in the French media.
Not so in Israel, where the issue comes up infrequently and those immigrants associated with fraudulent activity appear not to suffer much social stigma. After Israel’s Channel 13 News revealed that “Master Chef” winner Vanessa Abittan’s husband was a fugitive from French justice, she continued to be interviewed admiringly on Israeli television, speaking about about her clothing, lifestyle and cosmetic choices, and continued to be featured as a spokesmodel for the Crazy Line clothing brand.
Israeli authorities rarely comment on why so few alleged internet scammers are extradited or brought to justice. A May 2019 article on the French news site Liberation quoted former deputy state prosecutor Yehuda Sheffer explaining that one reason for the discrepancy between the French and Israeli attitude toward these activities is that the Israeli justice system is very different from the French one.
“We have had to deal with arrogant French magistrates who make no effort to understand a judicial system very different from theirs. The cooperation between our two countries has always been excellent, but the French have always complained,” he said.
According to Israel’s Law of Return, any person who is Jewish or is the child or grandchild or spouse of someone who is Jewish is qualified to immigrate to Israel and receive citizenship, with a few notable exceptions. One such exception consists of individuals “with a criminal past who are likely to endanger public safety.”
The Times of Israel contacted the Israel Police, the Justice Ministry, the Immigration and Population Authority and the Jewish Agency to ask not about specific cases, but whether they are aware of a general phenomenon of French citizens immigrating to Israel despite suspected involvement in criminal activity. All said they were not aware of such a phenomenon, nor had they collected data on or studied the issue.
Mickey Rosenthal, a police spokesman, said it was “inappropriate to suggest that immigrants from France are criminals.”
He added that the Israel Police does not comment on ongoing investigations, “so we won’t comment.”
A spokeswoman for the Justice Ministry said that it has no data or studies on the issue of French immigrants involved in alleged criminal activity.
A spokeswoman from the Jewish Agency sent the following statement:
“The Jewish Agency is unfamiliar with the [French police] report mentioned in the Times of Israel query. The examination of aliyah (immigration) eligibility is done in accordance with the Law of Return, which determines the conditions for aliya eligibility. There are some restrictions that can lead to rejection of eligibility, including the restriction of a candidate possessing a ‘criminal background who may endanger public safety.’”
“The role of The Jewish Agency, through its Eligibility Department in the Aliyah, Absorption and Special Operations Unit, is to examine candidates’ documents determining aliyah eligibility, on behalf of the Population and Immigration Authority, the authorized body under the Law of Return. In cases where a doubt as to criminal background arises, The Jewish Agency requests the candidate to submit documents proving the absence of criminal background, including an appropriate record (Teudat Yosher), and transfers this information to the Population and Immigration Authority who determines whether the candidate is eligible for Aliyah. The Jewish Agency is not authorized to track criminal activity of individuals nor of crime organizations in the State of Israel.”
Sabine Hadad, a spokeswoman for the Population and Immigration Authority, insisted that Israel carefully vets all newcomers.
“Anyone who immigrates to Israel under the Law of Return must present a certificate from their country of origin showing they have no criminal record.
“And if they are major criminals then they should be on an Interpol list,” she said.
Laws that lure criminals?
In recent years, Israel has passed several laws that critics claim could turn the country into a shelter for white-collar criminals evading prosecution.
In 2008, the Knesset passed a law known as Amendment 168 to the Tax Ordinance, or the “Milchan Law,” which grants a 10-year tax exemption on income earned abroad to new immigrants as well as to returning residents who have lived abroad for at least 10 years. In addition, the amendment gives those eligible a 10-year exemption on reporting earnings abroad.
During the debate preceding the law’s passage, one prominent tax law scholar argued that it would potentially attract tax evaders or money launderers to Israel.
“It’s one of the most shameful amendments that the Knesset has ever legislated,” University of Haifa tax law professor Yoseph M. Edrey wrote of the law shortly after it was passed.
“It will not encourage young scientists to return to Israel. It will not bring productive enterprises or encourage investment here. What it will do is attract wealthy individuals, both Jews and non-Jews, whose sources of income are murky.”
In June 2017, the Knesset passed another controversial law granting an Israeli passport to anyone eligible for Israeli citizenship, without any requirement to reside in the country.
Police objected to the law at the time saying that issuing passports immediately could allow international criminals to abuse Israeli citizenship.
“Today there is a real concern that criminal elements from the [former Soviet Union] will again use the State of Israel and its national passport for improper purposes,” Israel Police wrote to lawmakers at the time. “This may harm the well-being of the public and damage the country’s image in the modern world.”
Then-defense minister Avigdor Liberman strongly rejected the police recommendation, labeling it “racist” and “a hate crime” against new immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
A photo of thr White City Tower luxury apartment project in Tel Aviv (Facebook screenshot)
Despite warnings from critics against the Milchan law and the passports law, The Times of Israel could find no indication of any government follow-up study as to who may have obtained Israeli citizenship in their wake.
Israel is not the only country to offer citizenship to immigrants under conditions that might appeal to criminals. An October 2018 report by Global Witness and Transparency International describes the detrimental effects of “golden visa” programs offered by such European countries as Cyprus, Hungary, Malta and Portugal, whereby wealthy foreigners can gain EU citizenship by investing a certain amount — usually several hundreds of thousands of euros — in a specific country.
The idea behind the golden visa schemes, much like the idea behind the Milchan law, is to attract wealthy newcomers who will contribute to the country’s economic well-being. But the possibly unintended consequence, the report claims, is that countries end up attracting individuals who are seeking a safe haven for themselves and their money.
“By their very nature, golden visa schemes are attractive to the criminal and the corrupt,” the report states. Such schemes “risk not only the entrance of corrupt individuals into Member States, but also the corruption of states themselves.”
The report also claims that the money brought into countries through such schemes “is usually invested in passive segments of the economy (e.g., real estate), thus generating fewer benefits in terms of employment, innovation and industrial development” and may raise the cost of housing to the point where it becomes unaffordable to ordinary people.