Did Israel Put Money Over Justice?

“We feel betrayed by Netanyahu. The government sent us as soldiers into the battlefield. Then they turn around and leave us there. And finally they shoot us in the back.”

~ Yekutiel “Tuly” Wultz

by ROGER COHEN
The New York TImes
March 1, 2015

Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and China's premier, Li Keqiang, in 2013.

Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and China’s premier, Li Keqiang, in 2013.

ON April 17, 2006, a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 11 people near the old Tel Aviv bus station. Among the victims was Daniel Wultz, a bright and determined 16-year-old from Florida who fought for his life for 27 days before succumbing to severe injuries. His father, Yekutiel, who was wounded in the attack, watched the terrorist detonate himself. “I decided to do anything and everything I could,” he told me, “never again to have that helpless feeling.”

But almost nine years later, immense frustration has accumulated in Yekutiel Wultz, an Israeli citizen living in the United States, and his American wife, Sheryl Cantor Wultz (a cousin of Eric Cantor, the former House majority leader) over Israel’s actions since the death of their son and specifically over what they see as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s abandonment of his cause.

They say there is evidence that the bomber who killed their son was backed by Iranian money that was laundered through China. Their feelings are running particularly high as Netanyahu prepares to address a joint session of Congress this week, where he will oppose a possible nuclear deal with Iran sought byPresident Obama. The family shares with the prime minister a deep distrust of Tehran, but they also feel betrayed. They are convinced that, in their son’s case, Netanyahu has placed Israel’s commercial interests with China ahead of punishing those responsible for their son’s death, in effect protecting Iran.

“He will be here to talk about Iran as a criminal, yet he’s trying to prevent us being successful in a lawsuit in which Iran is very much involved,” Sheryl Wultz said. “We would like to ask Netanyahu what happened to his morals.” She added, “We don’t believe there is any justification in protecting the facilitators of terrorists.” A senior Israeli official in the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem, asked if Netanyahu had sold the Wultzes down the river in exchange for the pomp of his China visit in May 2013, said in an email that this was “unequivocally incorrect.”

How this bereaved couple’s fury at Islamic Jihad, which claimed responsibility for the attack, turned to deep disappointment in the leader of the Israel they love is a tangled story of lawsuits and intelligence services, Iran and China, emotion and realpolitik. Its outcome is still unclear; litigation continues. What is certain is that the experience has left the Wultz family feeling “re-victimized” by “inexplicable action that has prevented this going forward,” as Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, who has tried several times to intervene with Israel, put it to me. The Wultzes are among her Florida constituents.

Interviews and an extensive review of court documents demonstrate that the Wultzes embarked on their legal action in 2008 at Israel’s urging. Before the 2006 bombing, Israel determined that financing for Islamic Jihad and Hamas in Gaza and elsewhere had been funneled from Iran and Syria through a Bank of China branch in Guangzhou, China. It dispatched intelligence agents, armed with bank account numbers and dates of specific transfers, to China in an effort to persuade the Chinese to cut off the conduit — to no avail.

After Daniel’s death, the Israeli government saw a possible means to close down the money channel through United States courts. It pressed Daniel’s parents to file suit, saying it would provide evidence,including a witness named Uzi Shaya who had gone to China dozens of times in his role as an Israeli counterterrorism official, and other support. In the words of Lee Wolosky, a Wultz family lawyer, this was an Israeli operation “to use our courts to achieve a sovereign objective.” Because that objective seemed critically important, the Wultzes wanted to cooperate.

Israel duly provided sworn testimony in 2009 from Shlomo Matalon, who worked in the prime minister’s office from 1988 to 2007. He stated that “between July 2003 (and possibly earlier) and early 2008 (and possibly later) the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas leadership in Iran, Syria and other locations in the Middle East transferred millions of dollars” to operatives in Gaza and the West Bank “via the Bank of China.” Eighteen-digit account numbers, account holders and the amounts involved were listed.

The state-owned Bank of China has consistently denied the charges. Last year, in a statement, it said, “While we feel for the victims and their families and abhor terrorism in all forms, Bank of China is in no way responsible or connected to these acts.”

Israelis involved in the attempt to shut down the conduit found the Chinese were always unfailingly polite. They insisted they were acting according to international law, and argued that the clients were not on any black list. But it was only after the Wultz suit against the Bank of China began that funds ceased passing through the Guangzhou account, according to Uzi Shaya. Shaya left government service a few years after the attack. For a while he worked as chief executive of a major Israeli soccer club. He was always eager to help the Wultzes: No money, no terrorism was his mantra. But his intelligence work had been sensitive. Israel began to wobble on allowing Shaya to be deposed.

Growing impatient, the Wultzes wrote to Netanyahu on Feb. 13, 2012, saying that “we were promised the evidence we need to prove our case before we filed it” and never considered “that Israel would renege on its promise to us, victims of terror.” Among those who fought to help were Eric Cantor, then the House majority leader, whose family connection made the matter sensitive for him; Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen,Republican of Florida; and Wasserman Schultz.

These efforts proved effective. On April 1, 2012, the Wultzes received a call from an official in Netanyahu’s office saying Shaya had been authorized to testify, according to a sworn statement from Sheryl Wultz filed in court. Soon after, on May 14, 2012, the Wultzes received an email from Ros-Lehtinen’s chief of staff, saying, “Just received a call from the Israeli embassy that the Israeli government has given the authority” for the deposition.

Shaya was ready, but it was not to be. Within a year, tensions rose to a breaking point. The catalyst was Netanyahu’s groundbreaking five-day visit to China in May 2013 — a country with which Israeli business ties have been growing. Before it, Shaya was visited by a senior Israeli official who told him a promise had been made to the Chinese that he would be muzzled — and that he should therefore desist from efforts to depose in the Wultz case. Shaya was furious.

Sheryl Wultz met Shaya in Israel in May 2013. In her sworn statement, dated Dec. 16, 2013, she declared that from her conversation with him, she gathered that Netanyahu’s trip to China “was conditioned on Mr. Shaya not testifying.” Later, Shaya was detained for several hours by the Israeli police and warned that he could find himself alone in a prison cell if he testified.

The senior Israeli official in the prime minister’s office denied that any promise was made to the Chinese, but did not explain the strange Israeli about-face that coincided with the Netanyahu visit to Beijing.

Litigation has escalated of late. While Shaya was in Washington in the second half of 2013, Wultz family lawyers served him with a federal subpoena to compel his testimony. Israel answered by filing a petition against the Wultz family to prevent Shaya from testifying, arguing that any testimony could harm Israeli security by revealing state secrets.

In July 2014, Judge Shira A. Scheindlin of the Southern District of New York upheld Israel’s motion with regard to Shaya’s work as a government official — he could not be compelled to testify on this — but expressly authorized his voluntary deposition on matters since he leftgovernment work. These would include how, as a private citizen, he had been given access to materials in preparation for testifying in the case, only to be told in 2013 that he no longer could as a result of Chinese pressure. Shaya’s position is that he would gladly depose and wants to assist the Wultz case by all possible means.

Israel is now trying a variety of delaying tactics to prevent Shaya’s voluntary deposition. As Netanyahu comes to Washington, arguments continue in court.

Netanyahu, whose Washington visit has angered Obama and who faces an election March 17, likes to portray himself as a Churchillian figure of statesmanlike vision standing above the petty intrigues of lesser political figures who would undermine Israel’s security by making a deal with Iran. He sees himself as the great gatherer-in of the world’s Jews at a time of tension and rising anti-Semitism. But many who have dealt with him have come away with the impression of a far lesser figure: a tactician not a strategist; a waverer more than a man of principle; a man susceptible to blandishments.

The bottom line is this: Shaya’s testimony is considered critical to proving that “Iranian money,” having passed through the Bank of China, “killed Daniel Wultz,” as Wolosky, the Wultz lawyer, put it to me. Israel should honor its promise to the family to back the case to the hilt. It should allow Shaya to testify. Yekutiel Wultz, who served in the Israeli Army, told me: “We feel betrayed by Netanyahu. The government sent us as soldiers into the battlefield. Then they turn around and leave us there. And finally they shoot us in the back.”

You can follow Roger Cohen on Twitter at twitter.com/nytimescohen.

A version of this op­ed appears in print on March 1, 2015, on page SR2 of the New York edition with the headline: Did Israel Put Money Over Justice?.



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