The FinCEN Files - The Israeli Angle

Ir David Foundation received donations from mystery companies in the Virgin Islands. Leaked banking documents now confirm that Israel’s richest man - and owner of Chelsea football club - controls or is affiliated with these companies. Those donations helped to change the face of a Palestinian village.

The FinCEN Files - The Israeli Angle

Controversial East Jerusalem group gets $100 million from companies linked to Roman Abramovich

Ir David Foundation received donations from mystery companies in the Virgin Islands. Leaked banking documents now confirm that Israel’s richest man - and owner of Chelsea football club - controls or is affiliated with these companies. Those donations helped to change the face of a Palestinian village.

Ir David Foundation received donations from mystery companies in the Virgin Islands. Leaked banking documents now confirm that Israel’s richest man - and owner of Chelsea football club - controls or is affiliated with these companies. Those donations helped to change the face of a Palestinian village.

Uri Blau, Washington

Photo: David Vinkor

September 21, 2020

Summary

L

eaked banking documents show that several companies registered in the British Virgin Islands have donated more than $100 million to an organization dedicated to boosting the Jewish presence in East Jerusalem.

The identity of the man behind them is revealed here for the first time: Israeli-Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, who is affiliated to or controls all of these companies. The money has helped the foundation change the face of the Palestinian village of Silwan in East Jerusalem.

The Ir David Foundation, known by its Hebrew acronym, El’ad, was established in 1986 to strengthen "the generations-old Jewish connection to Jerusalem through tours, guidance, population growth and the publication of instruction material."

For years, the foundation was associated mainly with settlement activity in East Jerusalem; more recently, however, it has rebranded itself as a foundation engaged primarily in education and tourism and less so in settlement activity. On the foundation’s official website, for example, there is almost no mention of settlement activity, but it does talk about a joint venture last December with the Zappa night club in Tel Aviv.

Shahar Shilo, who headed the foundation’s marketing department until 2016, told the BBC - which investigated the donations to the association in collaboration with the writer of this piece - that in the mid-2000s, when El’ad’s new construction plans in Silwan were halted, the association changed its strategy and started investing in tourism.

"Supporter of Israeli and Jewish civil society." Abramovich (photo: Wikipedia)

"The chosen strategy," he said, "is the use of heritage tourism," by which the foundation tried "to shape the reality and influence public opinion." Thus, he added, the association sought to advance its goals: "Jewish sovereignty over ancient Jerusalem for generations to come and all eternity."

The latest reports submitted by El’ad relate to 2018, when its turnover was about 116 million shekels. El’ad reported to the Registrar of Associations that its real estate assets were worth close to 250 million shekels, of which around 140 million shekels were "real estate for settlement purposes"

El’ad is one of the largest and richest associations in Israel and owns vast assets. An analysis of the association's reports submitted since 2005 shows that its revenues over the period amounted to more than 1 billion shekels, with some 700 million shekels flowing into the foundation’s coffers as donations, and the remainder coming from state budgets, participation in covering the costs of archaeological digs, and income from tourism sites it manages.

The latest reports submitted by El’ad relate to 2018, when its turnover was about 116 million shekels. El’ad reported to the Registrar of Associations that its real estate assets were worth close to 250 million shekels, of which around 140 million shekels were "real estate for settlement purposes." In the same year, El’ad reported donations of around 84 million shekels, with the bulk coming from the foundation’s Friends of Ir David association, which is based in New York.

But as in each of the last few years, El’ad also received significant donations that originated in the British Virgin Islands. An analysis of the foundation’s reports shows that between 2005 and 2018, El’ad received almost 176 million shekels from a company called Farleigh; a company known as Leiston donated just under 94 million shekels; Ovington contributed about 65 million shekels; and Cantley injected about 13 million shekels. The four companies, which were registered in the sun-soaked Caribbean islands on the same day and under the same address in 2003, donated a total of 348,422,122 shekels to El’ad, a sum that reflects about half of the total volume of donations to El’ad during that period.

El’ad: We report all that is required by law

El’ad's file at the Registrar of Associations contains hundreds of documents. A review of the file shows that over the years, the companies from the Virgin Islands have been mentioned in correspondence between the foundation and the Registrar. In 2007, for example, the Registrar asked El’ad for more details about companies, including those in Virgin Island, which had made donations to the foundation in 2005. El’ad adamantly refused to comply with the request, noting in its response to the Registrar that it reports everything required of it by law. Shortly thereafter, El’ad ceased completely to provide the Registrar with the particulars of its donors and started doing so again only more than a decade later, following the Registrar’s insistence.

Until now, the identity of the individual behind the four companies has remained unknown. A huge leak involving confidential bank documents from around the world that were submitted to the U.S. Treasury, sheds light on the mystery for the first time

In 2016, the foundation filed retroactive reports, and the same four companies from the Virgin Islands appear in the documents over and over again. In 2007, for example, they were responsible for close to 90 percent of the total donations to El’ad. In that same year, the bulk of the donations were allocated to "various development and settlement projects in the City of David."

Photo: ICIJ

Until now, the identity of the individual behind the four companies has remained unknown. A huge leak involving confidential bank documents from around the world that were submitted to the U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) sheds light on the mystery for the first time. The documents, which were submitted to the U.S. Congress in the framework of the investigation into Russia’s alleged involvement in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, were leaked to BuzzFeed News and then shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and some 400 journalists from 108 media outlets around the globe. The writer of this piece and Shomrim - The Center for Media and Democracy are the ICIJ’s Israeli partners. See accompanying article for more on the leak.

It is important to note that there is no mention at all of El’ad and the donations it received in the leaked bank documents.

The leaked documents reveal, inter alia, details about numerous businesspersons and companies from around the world, including information about the Ultimate Beneficial Owners of various companies, and many off-shore enterprises among them. UBO is a term in domestic and international commercial law that refers to the person or persons who own or control a certain company.

The four companies that donated to El’ad are mentioned in a report submitted by Deutsche Bank's American branch to the U.S. Treasury Department. Abramovich, the documents claim, is the UBO of three of the companies (Farleigh, Ovington and Cantley). The report doesn’t specify the UBO of Leiston, but notes that based on several sources (the bank is probably referring to media sources, U.B.), Leiston is an investment company that holds the contracts of a number of professional soccer players and is controlled by an associate of Abramovich.

More than a million visitors a year. One of the Sillwan sites (photo: David Vinocur)

Born in Russia, Abramovich became an Israeli citizen in 2018 and immediately topped the list of the country’s wealthiest individuals, with a fortune, according to media estimates, of $12-13 billion. In recent years, he has purchased at least two real estate assets in Tel Aviv - the Varsano Hotel in Neve Tzedek and the adjacent Magen House building. He’s also reported to have purchased an estate in Herzliya Pituach in early 2020.

When donations from the Virgin Islands began flowing in, for example, the foundation boasted around 190 settlers in Silwan and about 150,000 visitors a year to the City of David National Park. Fifteen years and $100 million later, the number of Jews living in Silwan has almost doubled, and the various tourism sites run by El’ad are getting more than million visitors a year

Abramovich, 53, is best known for his ownership of British soccer club Chelsea, as well as his fleet of luxurious yachts and worldwide business affairs. He’s considered a very private individual, and a particularly generous philanthropist, too, with donations of hundreds of millions of dollars to Jewish organizations in Russia, to help combat anti-Semitism in Britain, and in support of Sheba Medical Center in Israel. He doesn’t speak publicly on political or diplomatic issues, and his views on the Israel-Palestinian conflict are unknown.

Nevertheless, the huge sums of money that companies to which he’s tied have donated to El’ad have helped change one of the most volatile places in the world: Silwan.

When donations from the Virgin Islands began flowing in, for example, the foundation boasted around 190 settlers in Silwan and about 150,000 visitors a year to the City of David National Park. Fifteen years and $100 million later, the number of Jews living in Silwan has almost doubled, and the various tourism sites run by El’ad are getting more than million visitors a year. These, as mentioned, weren’t the only donations that the foundation received, but they constitute a very significant chunk of its revenues.

A spokesman for Mr Abramovich told the BBC, that "Mr Abramovich is a committed and generous supporter of Israeli and Jewish civil society, and over the past 20 years he had donated over five hundred million dollars to support healthcare, science, education and Jewish communities in Israel and around the world."

El’ad, for its part, told the BBC that it operates in keeping with the law and reports to the Registrar of Associations as required. In response to a question about ties to Abramovich, El’ad’s vice-president, Doron Spielman, said that the foundation respects the privacy of its donors.