June 3, 2011 / 6:48 AM / 8 years ago

Elderly Israeli tycoon in Iran scandal dies

TEL AVIV (Reuters) - Israeli shipping mogul Sammy Ofer, whose business empire is at the center of a scandal over trade with Iran, has died after a long illness, a family representative said on Friday.

Sammy, 89, was the wealthiest man in Israel, building up with his brother Yuli one of the world’s largest private shipping fleets.

The Ofer Brothers Group was slapped with U.S. sanctions last month, accused of selling an oil tanker to Iran — Israel’s arch-foe. The brothers denied any wrongdoing, saying they did not realize the buyer had been a front for an Iranian company.

The Israeli government has long urged tough action against Iran, accusing it of building a nuclear bomb. But authorities reacted cautiously to the U.S. move, fuelling speculation about possible links between the brothers and intelligence services.

The Monaco-based Ofer Brothers Group controls a network of companies worldwide, and Israeli newspapers have reported that besides the controversial tanker sale, a number of the group’s ships had docked in Iran in recent years.

Lawmakers met on Tuesday to discuss legal aspects of the case, but the meeting, aired live on television, was adjourned within minutes after the chairman, Carmel Shama-Hacohen, received a mysterious note from an aide.

“Let’s just be clear the note is not from a political figure and not from a business figure,” Shama-Hacohen said, leaving open the possibility of an appeal by the defense establishment.

“It turns out that reality is much more complex, much more complicated and touchy than the average imagination can handle,” he added, only adding to the speculation.

Ofer was born in Romania in 1922 and his family moved to the territory that was to become modern Israel shortly afterwards. His father established a small shipping company that his sons developed into a world leader.

Ofer is said to be one of the world’s top art collectors, with a penchant for works by impressionist masters. He was reported to have paid $40.3 million for a painting by Vincent van Gogh that went to auction in 2006.

Writing by Maayan Lubell; editing by Crispian Balmer

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