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ISRAEL: Organized crime suspects extradited to the U.S.

January 12, 2011 |  8:15 pm


A group of five Israelis aboard a private plane to Los Angeles could have been a high-flying business delegation. The group, which left Israel on Wednesday, is indeed alleged to have been involved in business -- but not exactly the kind that goes through the Southern California-Israel Chamber of Commerce.

Brothers Meir and Itzhak Abergil (sometimes spelled Abargil) -- along with three associates -- were extradited to the U.S., where they are wanted for a list of crimes in the Los Angeles area, including the murder of an Israeli drug dealer in town. They are also suspected of drug trafficking, organized crime activity and money laundering linked to a huge embezzlement case that collapsed the Israeli Trade Bank almost a decade ago.

The Abergil brothers headed what is believed to be one of Israel's most powerful and dangerous crime families -- "the lords of organized crime" by Israeli standards, Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said Wednesday. In a recent phone conversation broadcast on Israel's Channel 10 television Wednesday evening, Meir Abergil is alleged to say they were "peanuts compared to the mafias they have in America."

Non-Americans can be charged under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) if a significant crime was committed on U.S. soil, or if one committed elsewhere results in significant damage to the U.S. It was unclear whether the suspects would be tried under RICO. 

Regardless, they've been in Israeli jail since 2008, when U.S. authorities sought their extradition. An  Israeli court ruled that all five were extraditable a year ago, but it wasn't until recently that their appeal was turned down by the Supreme Court, allowing them to be handed over.

According to Israel's extradition law, an Israeli citizen may be turned over to another country to stand trial for crimes committed in that nation, but the nation must allow him or her to serve any sentence in Israel if desired. An agreement to that effect was reached in this case.

Extradition1 This is the second such high-profile case in recent years. Drug kingpin Zeev Rosenstein was extradited to the U.S. in 2006. Rosenstein, then listed by the U.S. as among the top 44 traffickers in the world, stood trial in Miami. Eighteen months after being extradited, he returned to Israel to serve out his 12-year sentence (which has since grown for murder).

Israel may be an unruly place, but organized crime is, well, organized. Business got better and rising stakes bred cross-continent turf wars over control of gambling and drug markets in Europe and the U.S.

As suicide bombings thinned out, crime family rivalries put a new fear on Israeli streets. Antitank missiles, bombs and guns were used in a series of brazen attacks that also killed innocent bystanders. In an attempt to regain control of the situation and crush the growing mob scene, a special task force, Lahav, was established. Since Israel began its crackdown on organized crime, said Rosenfeld, 500 people have been put behind bars.

Other governments were paying attention, as is now apparent courtesy of WikiLeaks. A 2009 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv indicates American concerns over the impact of organized crime in Israel, its possible infiltration of government and its growing foothold in the U.S. 

Besides some cute language ("not your grandfather's mob"), the cable reveals the practical difficulties in keeping suspects out of the U.S., as Israelis increasingly obtain passports from European countries on the visa waiver list. In addition, procedural changes in recent years have meant that people known to work for or belong to crime families in Israel aren't automatically ineligible for travel, unlike groups from the former Soviet Union, China, Italy and Central America.

On several occasions, the embassy used information received from the LAPD to revoke visas issued to Israeli members or foot soldiers of local crime families, according to the cable.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

Photos: Police, top, escort Itzhak Abergil; Meir Abergil, bottom, boards a U.S.-bound plane. Credit: Israeli police