NOTE: This is the second post about the Dan Gertler-Yossi Cohen scandal. Part 1 is here.
This week, Israeli TV broadcaster Kan, aired a two-part documentary, Operation Gertler, about the oligarch who made his billions on the backs of Congolese workers working the mines, producing cobalt and other precious minerals critical for running the world economy. Part 1 is here and Part 2 here. Dan Gertler, an ultra-Orthodox Jew and discple of an Israeli “wonder rabbi,” owned concessions to extract cobalt, diamonds, oil, gold, etc from the Congo’s enormous wealth of natural resources. He bought those rights on the cheap by bribing key officials, including then-Pres. Joseph Kabila. The latter received $360-million during a single period from 2006-2010.
Gertler’s rampant corrupt dealings and the billions he was stealing from the Congolese government (in order to resolve its claims against him, he recently returned $2-billion to its treasury, a small percentage of his overall haul there–more on this later), the US, UK and Switzerland froze is assets and levied sanctions on him. This denied him access not only to his own assets, it prevented him from engaging in any financial or business activity. He was desperate to remove these sanctions and resume his business dealings in Africa.
As one of the richest Israelis (in a 2015 article he is ranked 10th), Gertler enjoyed access at the highest level of Israel’s political echelon. As part of his campaign, he enlisted the aid of then-prime minister, Bibi Netanyahu. Gertler also sought the assistance of a more unlikely figure, then-Mossad chief, Yossi Cohen. The latter has always been known as an extremely ambitious political animal with eventual designs on the prime-ministership.
The Israeli military censor has slapped a ban on reporting key elements regarding this scandal. Primary among them is why the country’s top intelligence official would fly three times in the course of six months on behalf of a private Irsaeli citizen. Also a mystery, is how the respective figures involved benefited. Whether Cohen was solely acting on Gertler’s behalf; whether he was pursuing an Israeli interest, security or otherwise; and what role the prime minister played.
Congolese Banking Staff Blow the Whistle on Gertler
The first suspicions regarding Gertler’s financial dealings in Congo were raised by a bank auditor, who witnessed Gertler entering his bank and bypassing usual account procedures for new customers, and lugging suitcases full of cash which he brought into a private bank conference room. When the bank auditor asked his boss what was going on, he was told to forget what he saw. Later, the official began to copy bank records of the Israel’s questionable financial transactions. Among them were the transfer of $19-millions to the son of a “wonder-working rabbi,” David Abuhatzeira. Israeli business records indicate that the latter worth nearly $200-million, mostly derived from disciples seeking blessings, advice on business deals, or seeking health cures.
Gertler is one of the rabbi’s wealthiest disciples. It’s not clear whether the millions Gertler transferred to Abuhatzeira were outright donations; or whether Gertler intended to launder his ill-gotten wealth via the rabbi, who would return it to him after it had been “cleansed.” In the US, a number of business people and their Orthodox rabbi accomplices have been convicted for this type of tax fraud. Forbes estimates his wealth as $1.3-billion as of 2022. But given his penchant for financial skullduggery, it’s likely that figure is much higher.
After the bank records were spirited out of the country, the auditor received death threats and decided to flee. He moved to Paris, where he was recognized as a whistleblower by a French anti-corruption NGO. The organization began to raise red flags about Gertler. This aroused concerns among three countries in which Gertler had deposited his assets: the US, the UK, and Switzerland. They each investigated and confirmed accusations of massive fraud and corruption and slapped sanctions on the Israeli magnate. Not only could he not access his wealth in these countries, no financial institution or business could have any relationship with him.
Enter Yossi Cohen, Gertler’s Fixer
So began a years-long campaign to clear his name and remove the sanctions. I outlined much of this in my earlier post. But Operation Gertler, added a great deal of new information. The Israeli oligarch began by enlisting then-Mossad chief, Yossi Cohen, claiming he could offer critical security information to Israei intelligence. For this and perhaps other reasons, Cohen requested approval from then-PM Netanyahu to get involved. Netanyahu gave his blessing.
After the fact, in defending his own participation, Cohen claimed that his activities in Congo promoted Israeli strategic interests and pointed to the PM’s approval. But numerous former Israeli intelligence officials interviewed about the mysterious operation, including former IDF chief of staff, Gaby Ashkenazi, declared that Israeli had no strategic interest in Congo and never had. They dismissed Cohen’s claims as “rubbish.” Even more chilling, one of the sources interviewed said that Cohen could have been prosecuted and jailed for his freelance intelligence schemes. Alternatively, had Cohen been kidnapped during these trips it would have caused enormous damage to Israel, not to mention jeopardizing the life of Israel’s highest intelligence official. If it had to rescue him in an Entebbe-like operation it would not only have a hugely complex operation; it could have led to massive casualties, possibly even including Cohen himself.
The Kan program speculates that Cohen agreed to participate in Gertler’s scheme because Kabila had threatened to expose Israeli intelligence “secrets” and that he was in some sense extorting Israel. Conceivably, he could expose Israeli assets in African countries, endangering them or even causing their death. Operation Gertler suggests that he offered Cohen a deal: if Gertler aided Cohen in his secret mission in Congo, then Cohen would aid Gertler in Washington DC in removing sanctions, which is indeed what happened.
Bibi Gives His Blessing
After Gertler’s original approach to Cohen he, in turn, sought and received permission from then-prime minister Bibi Netanyahu to intervene on Gertler’s behalf in the Congo. Cohen traveled secretly three times to the country, meeting each time with deposed former president, Joseph Kabila. The secrecy of the operation is evident through a story recounted in the Kan program. On his second trip, when he arrived at the Kinshasa airport, Cohen refused to disembark until Congolese authorities assured him he would not have to go through immigration, and his trip would thus remain secret to both to, presumably the current president, Felix Tshesikedi (and Israeli media as well). The immigration officials refused, and there was a standoff until one of Kabila’s henchmen, known for his brutality during Kabila’s reign, fetched Cohen from the airport and whisked him away.
A number of key elements of this story have been slapped with military censorship, including the reason Cohen intervened and what was said between him and Kabila. It seems far-fetched that Cohen was attempting to help Gertler with his entanglements in Congo as Kabila was no longer in power. But if Kabila and Cohen were plotting to overthrow Tshisekedi and restore the former leader, then the might make sense. For Israel to involve itself, even covertly, in such a wild scheme would breach all norms of multi-lateral relations among nations.
As I wrote in my earlier post, during his third trip, Cohen entered the meeting with Tshisekedi with an entourage including a locally-based Israeli diplomat and others. But the president dismissed them and told Cohen to enter his private office alone. When Cohen emerged, Congolese security officials escorted him directly to the airport and ordered him to leave the country. Sources told the Operation Gertler reporters that Cohen too grew angry during the meeting, and reminded Tshisekedi that he was a “friend” of US secretary of state Mike Pompeo. He threatened that he would urge the US to withdraw support for his regime. Unbeknownst to Cohen, the president had already complained to the US ambassador about the Israeli spy chief. Another reason for the rancourous meeting was the Congolese leader feared Israel’s top spy and his rival, Kabila, were plotting a coup against him. Cohen’s deportation ended Isreal’s efforts on Gertler’s behalf in Congo.
Whatever the motivation for the Israeli spymaster’s Congo intervention, it directly opposed US Africa policy. Our State Department essentially forced Kabila from power and supported Tshisekedi ‘s election. We viewed him as far more honest and humane than his predecessor. Our goal was to stabilize Congo afer a decade or more of civil war with 4-million dead. The war had become a regional conflict with Rwanda, Uganda and other powers sending their troops and employing proxies to fight and promote their interests. We wanted to end this rivalry and blood shed and transform Congo from a failed state to a functioning one. Gertler’s rapaciousness was viewed highly unfavorably in this regard. US diplomats were furious with the Israeli intervention, though they did not openly voice their disapproval because then-Pres. Trump had an exceedingly close relationship with Netanyahu.
In 2017, the US placed Gertler on a sanctions list of corrupt internatonal figures. This served not only to freeze their US assets, but made them persona non grata with all international financial institutions. It was after this blow that Gertler moved as much as $60-million out of Congo via Afriland Bank, transferring the funds to numerous Israeli individuals, including Shlomo Abuhatzeira.
Israeli officials who opposed Cohen’s lobbying efforts, noted that it was unprecedented for Israel to intercede in US decisions concerning sanctions. It had never before lobbied on behalf of an individual citizen. Such intervention needlessly aroused the ire of senior US officials.
The US was also angry because, as the NY Times reported, there was an international rivalry between US and Chinese interests in securing rights to critical minerals like cobalt and molybdenum, key battery components of electric vehicles and cell phones from Congolese mines. In this battle for dominance, Gertler may have served as a disruption to US interests in procuring a stable supply of these resources.
Gertler’s Who’s Who of DC Power Brokers
Once Gertler’s Congo plan failed, he decided to take his campaign directly to the US, believing that the Israel would press our government to lift sanctions against him. To that end, he enlisted a Who’s Who of US and Israeli power players to lobby the Trump adminitration on his behalf. They included Cohen, as mentioned above, Alan Dershowitz, former-FBI director Louis Freeh, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Israeli ambassador, Ron Dermer. Cohen even traveled to the US and met with Pompeo in order to advance Gertler’s cause.
I have just learned (and this is an unconfirmed report from a trusted source) that last June Cohen flew to the US and was detained when he landed at the airport. US agents (though I don’t which agency questioned him, it would likely have been the FBI) interrogated him. But Cohen asked them to accompany him to his hotel so the questioning would be more discreet. They obliged. If this story is true, then it’s quite possible this may be what the military censor wants suppressed. It would be deeply embarrassing to Israel to learn that its former top intelligence official was detained by US authorities on suspicion of corruption.
Why would the US wish to question Cohen? Again, I’m speculating here but, given that during the Trump administration Cohen lobbied intensiveliy on Gertler’s behalf; and given that his efforts flew in the face of several US agenices and senior officials, this might be one reason. Another might be any exchange between Gertler and Cohen: if Gertler paid Cohen or offered him some interest in his businesses. There are many ways in which the two of them could have engaged in criminal, corrupt acts. It’s also possible US officials wanted to question Cohen about Netanyahu’s role in the scheme, if any.
As I mentioned, during the Trump administraton, State Department officials were livid at Gertler’s end-run around them, but were powerless because Netanyahu had direct access to the president. Trump’s decision to lift sanctions was so divisive inside the Administration, that the president made it secretly, five days before he left office. Once Pres. Biden assumed office, he reinstated the sanctions and they are currently in place.
Since then, the new Israeli government has dropped all efforts to help Gertler. To turn a new leaf, PM Bennett invited Tshisekedi to Israel for a state visit. During his talks with the prime minister, the Congolese leader asked Bennett what Cohen had been doing in Congo. Bennett responded that even he had no idea what the purpose of the mission was.
Cohen Does a Deal with Tshisekedi
Gertler, however, has continued his campaign to redeem his reputation and financial status. He returned to Congo. But this time, he engaged with the president himself, negotiating a deal calling for the Israeli magnate to return $2-billion in looted Congolese assets. In return, Gertler would received a royalty of 2.5% of all gross profits from his former mines. Given the billions these facilities produce, Gertler would still be raking in potentially hundreds of millions. A European anti-corruption activist puts the figure at $200,000 per day (or $75-million yearly). Even more important, Congo would drop all charges against him which would, in turn persuade, or so he hoped, the three nations which sanctioned him to drop them. Congolese sources also noted a secret addendum to the deal which required their country to appeal to the US to remove the sanctions. When a State Department official requested to review the secret provision, he was refused.
Congolese human rights activists are adamantly opposed to this deal. They want Gertler out of their country entirely. He, they declare, deserves no further benefit from their country given the suffering he inflicted on his impoverished mine workers and his pillage of Congo.
The Biden administration supports this demand and will not remove sanctions as long as Gertler has any economic interests in Congo.