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Is Dirty Money Fueling Israel's Natural Gas Boom?

Sunset on Israel's Meged oil field
Sunset on Israel's Meged oil field
Tomer Ganon and Roni Singer

TEL AVIV — The 2009 discovery of the Tamar gas field off the coast of Israel sparked a classic rush in which money poured in from all sides, stock prices soared, and fortunes were made overnight.

But this dash for gas may also have attracted investments from more dubious sources. Roughly two years after the Tamar discovery, Israeli's special police unit for fighting economic crime began receiving intelligence pointing to criminal organizations being involved in the gas and oil sector. Certain unsavory characters, it would seem, had gotten into the business of mediating and purchasing offshore and onshore drilling licenses.

An initial police investigation dubbed "Master of Illusions" centered on an illegal online gambling operation allegedly led by Roy Hayun. Police now believe Hayun may have used a mediation deal to launder gambling revenue by acquiring rights in an oil exploration license. He also purchased shares of a company called ILDC Energy, which holds licenses for two gas fields.

Four years of eavesdropping, investigations, searches, and monitoring of international transactions have unearthed an affair that left police and tax investigators, and even attorneys, puzzled by its breadth. The transactions they've been trailing involve not only organized crime, but also key figures in finance and energy, and even former soccer players. Overall, it is believed that millions of shekels worth of online gambling revenue was laundered through the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange and ended up in oil drilling operations off the Israeli coast.

Two weeks ago the state attorney's office informed some of the 12 people under investigation that it plans to file charges and eventually hold hearings.

From soccer pitch to oil deals

Hayun, 32, made his fortunes in the foreign exchange sector. In recent months he has been dividing his time between Israel and London. He is believed to be working today with other Israelis in England and Ireland. He was interrogated three years ago in a separate case related to suspicions over fraud in soccer, but after two years, the case was closed with no charges.

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Roy Hayun — Photo: Mu Israel

In May 2013, police opened a new investigation against Hayun based on suspicions that he operated gambling websites involving dozens of millions of shekels. Hayun was then arrested, moments before he boarded a flight abroad, and held for two weeks. Among his belongings, police found a notebook with dozens of names of suspected gamblers and their debts.

Police also found evidence of Hayun's involvement in gas and oil deals. In one such deal, Hayun bought ILDC Energy shares for 3.7 million shekels ($940,000) in 2010 and later sold them for 17.6 million shekel (neary $4.5 million).

Investigators are more interested in the source of the money than the fantastic returns he received. Their suspicion is that Hayun bought the stocks as a way to launder money he'd earned from illegal activities. To pull off those kinds of deals, he needed three ingredients: a deal, a straw man and shell accounts.

Moshe Hershberg, an Australian businessman now residing in Israel, caught the investigators' attention. He was familiar with the business of hydrocarbon explorations and, according to the draft indictment, was also a heavy gambler with debts to Hayun standing at nearly $500,000. He may, therefore, have been on the lookout for business opportunities that could help him mitigate his debts.

In late 2010, Hershberg found out that Lapidoth-Heletz, a firm that held 42.5% of the license for the onshore oil drilling company Sarit, was seeking to sell some of its exploration rights. Investigators believe he then approached Hayun and offered to broker a deal whereby the latter would buy the license and later resell it at a profit. In the process, Hershberg's brokerage fees would be deducted from his debt to Hayun.

Hershberg led the negotiations and signed all contracts — essentially acting as a straw man, presumably to hide Hayun's involvement. Shell accounts of a third party were also used in a bid to cover up any trace of the source of the funds. It is perhaps these accounts, at an exchange business that investigators visited while probing a separate case, that raised some flags.

Hershberg's attorney, Micha Petman, describes his client as "a respected businessman" who is well known in his field. "In our opinion, he has not done a single thing to breach the law, and he is convinced that at the end of the day it will turn out he committed no offenses or actions to enable others to commit offences," Petman said.

Jacob Luxenburg, who owns Lapidoth-Heletz, said he wasn't familiar with the details of this case. "We sold 10% of the Sarit license. For us, it was an ordinary deal. I was summoned by the police to talk about the details."

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