Mossad, a mining magnate and a mystery in Congo: Israelis ask why their spooks helped a controversial businessman

Source: The Economist

Dan Gertler

May 31st 2022 | JERUSALEM

One of israel’s richest men does his business from a discreet floor in the Israel Diamond Exchange and lives in a nondescript villa in one of Tel Aviv’s drabber suburbs. At home he has been little known to the public. But across Africa his name has long resounded controversially, especially in the Democratic Republic of Congo (drc). Dan Gertler, aged 48, the scion of a diamond-trading family, began doing business there in the 1990s and has since bought lucrative mining concessions, partly due to his closeness to Laurent and Joseph Kabila, father and son, who presided over the country, one after the other, from 1997 until three years ago. Mr Gertler’s interests in Congo have included diamond, copper and cobalt concessions, some of which he sold on to Glencore, one of the world’s biggest commodities traders.

He has long been controversial. In 2017 the American Treasury sanctioned him under the Magnitsky Act, whereby the assets of alleged human-rights offenders or corrupt operators can be frozen. It said Mr Gertler had “amassed his fortune through hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of opaque and corrupt mining and oil deals” in Congo and of using “his close friendship with DRC President Joseph Kabila to act as a middleman for mining asset sales”.

What has finally drawn the attention of Israelis to Mr Gertler is recent reports by Israel’s public broadcaster and by Haaretz, a newspaper, that he was helped out by some of the most powerful men serving Israel’s previous government under Binyamin Netanyahu. It has transpired that one of them, Yossi Cohen, then the director of Mossad, Israel’s foreign-intelligence agency, went three times to Congo in 2019 to intercede on Mr Gertler’s behalf with President Joseph Kabila and his successor, Felix Tshisekedi. Mr Gertler has strenuously denied any wrongdoing, stressing that he has never been charged in any court anywhere in the world.

Those close to him and Mr Cohen, who retired from Mossad a year ago, insist that all their dealings were in the service of Israel’s national interests. Mossad, like other intelligence agencies, often uses local contacts and agents of influence (“helpers,” in Mossad argot) and will go to lengths to bail them out of trouble. Still, three trips by the service chief to one of Africa’s most corrupt countries has raised eyebrows. Mr Gertler was aided by another senior Israeli, Ron Dermer, then the ambassador to America, who has cited “relationships in the region that are important to Israel’s interests” as a reason for trying to get Mr Gertler off America’s sanctions list. Messrs Dermer and Cohen were among Mr Netanyahu’s most trusted aides, often undertaking secret missions for his government. Mr Netanyahu even spoke of them as his possible successors. Coincidentally Mr Netanyahu, who is facing an array of corruption charges, has the same lawyer as Mr Gertler.

While the year-old Israeli government under Naftali Bennett maintains that Mr Cohen was acting within his brief as Mossad chief, senior officials in Jerusalem insist there is no longer any connection between the agency and Mr Gertler and that whatever services Mr Gertler may have performed were for the previous government.

Just before Donald Trump left the White House he issued an order to let Mr Gertler operate under a special licence while on the sanctions list, but President Joe Biden promptly put him back in the doghouse. Mr Bennett is keen to keep Mr Biden sweet. He also seeks good relations throughout Africa, as previous Israeli governments have done. Across the continent Mr Gertler is not universally loved.