BUENOS AIRES (Oct. 22)
In the small Argentine city of Tolhuin, a few wooden posts covered by broken white plastic swayed in the wind.
That image — aired over Argentine television in September — unleashed a controversy and investigations against the former Israeli ambassador in Argentina, Yitzhak Aviran.
The TV program “Punto Doc” presented research alleging that Aviran was involved in nefarious business dealings that benefitted a businessman close to him, Osvaldo Shvartzer, and perhaps the envoy himself.
At issue is some $17 million in Argentine government money, granted for projects throughout the country in which the Israeli Embassy played an intermediary role.
The program suggested that the projects were never completed.
After a four-day visit to Argentina, a team from the Israeli Foreign Ministry this week said it had found no evidence of malfeasance but would continue to investigate.
Pinchas Avivi, Israel’s deputy director general for Latin America and the Caribbean, said the projects in question were “done and well done.”
The mission is taking documents back to Israel for analysis and will then make a statement. Until now, their questions have centered on the way in which the projects were conceived.
“We are not sure if the agreements signed by the embassy during Aviran’s period have passed through all the legal requirements of international cooperation,” Avivi said.
Back in Israel, the mission will check if the embassy’s commercial and political departments performed their required role in these agreements.
The issue of international cooperation is at the heart of the matter, according to those involved with the TV show.
“It was odd to us to see that a foreign embassy was involved in these projects that use money from the national savings in the provinces. It is the only case we have known,” “Punto Doc’s” general producer, Fernando Lojo, told JTA.
For example, $830,000 was granted to build a greenhouse in Tolhuin, but the only greenhouse found there — incomplete and abandoned — could never have cost that much, the report said.
In a telephone interview with JTA, Aviran denied any wrongdoing, and said the projects began after two cooperation agreements between Argentina and Israel.
“After a project done in Formosa province, other provinces asked for Israeli technological support,” he said. “There was a lot of work done and many people were given job opportunities.”
Aviran, who served as ambassador from 1993 to 2000, says he now works for an Israeli firm that does business in several countries, including Argentina.
Andrea Sklar, a former spokeswoman for the embassy under Aviran, said the television program that made the allegations against Aviran had an “anti-Semitic tint.”
The program was titled “The Business of the Attacks,” suggesting that money was given to silence complaints about unsolved bombings in Buenos Aires of the Israeli Embassy and the AMIA Jewish community center in 1992 and 1994, respectively. The two bombings together killed more than 100 people.
Israeli officials and Argentine Jewish officials deny such allegations.
Alfredo Neuburger, the spokesman for DAIA, the Jewish umbrella organization, told JTA that it is “disgraceful” to suppose that payoffs might have stopped the investigations into the bombings.
Officials with both DAIA and AMIA, Argentina’s two major Jewish institutions, say they want the truth to come out.
The consequences of the program “for the Israeli Embassy and, in an indirect way, for the State of Israel have been very negative,” the president of AMIA, Abraham Kaul, told JTA.
These are not the first allegations made against Schvartzer and Aviran.
In 1997, an Israeli Foreign Ministry team criticized Aviran for favoring Schvartzer, a businessman who was AMIA vice president between 1996 and 1999. But the team’s report did not recommend sanctions against Aviran.
Still, the use of Shvartzer as an intermediary struck some as strange.
“There is a commercial department at the embassy in charge of” such business projects, Argentine journalist Diego Melamed told JTA.
Aviran recently told the Forward newspaper that the accusations are part of a campaign to disgrace Carlos Menem, a former president who is running again in primary elections this week. Aviran and Menem were close.
AMIA’s ethics committee is considering a separate investigation of Schvartzer.