Sammy Ofer dies at 89; Israeli business tycoon

Reporting from Jerusalem -- Israeli billionaire Sammy Ofer, whose powerful, family-owned conglomerate is under scrutiny for alleged dealings with Iran, died Friday in Tel Aviv after a long illness. He was 89.

Considered Israel's richest man with a family fortune estimated by Forbes at $10.3 billion, Ofer and his brother, Yuli, built Ofer Bros. Group into Israel's biggest private enterprise, with interests in shipping, oil refineries, chemicals, semiconductors, banking and media.

"Ofer was a Zionist through and through, and never forgot his commitment to others, even when he ascended to great heights," said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Among the family's holdings are stakes in Israel Corp., Zim Shipping, Royal Caribbean International, Dead Sea Works, Israel Chemicals and Mizrahi-Tefahot Bank.

Colleagues said Ofer's business acumen and management skills set a new standard in Israel for running for-profit companies, helping transform the country's economy over the last 20 years from one dominated by lackluster government-run companies to a fast-growing market that draws international investment.

"He's the one who helped bring in huge funds from abroad by buying Israeli companies, investing in Israeli companies and making Israeli companies flourish," said Shlomo Maoz, chief economist at Excellence Investment, one of Israel's largest investment houses. "His impact on the economy has been unbelievable."

Ofer is survived by his wife, Aviva; and two sons, Eyal and Idan, who have been running the company for years.

"The group's business will continue without change, while protecting our tradition of hard work and commitment, which constitute the great inheritance Sammy left behind him," the company said in a statement Friday.

The family's fortunes and government ties have long stirred controversy in Israel. Critics allege that the family has used its influence to win lucrative concessions, particularly in purchasing government assets, such as oil refineries.

A journalist and documentary-maker who accused the Ofers of corruption in 2008 found no commercial television channel willing to air his film after the family threatened to sue.

Last week, Ofer Bros. was in the headlines again amid allegations that the company had commercial dealings with Iran, Israel's archenemy.

U.S. officials have accused an Ofer subsidiary of violating U.S. sanctions against Iran by selling an oil tanker for $8.6 million to a front company, which then sold it to an Iranian firm.

In a statement last week, Ofer officials said they were not aware that the final buyer was an Iranian firm.

The State Department said Ofer "failed to exercise due diligence" and should have known it was dealing with an Iranian front company.

Since then, Israeli media reports allege that at least half a dozen Ofer-owned ships have docked in Iranian ports over the last decade, raising questions about whether the company also violated Israeli restrictions on commercial trade with Iran. Israeli officials are mulling whether to open an investigation.

Ofer representatives, speaking anonymously to the media, claimed that the company had government permission to visit Iran and hinted that it was assisting in the "national" interest. Israeli officials quickly denied such claims and the company later backed away from the statements.

Born in Romania in 1922, Ofer immigrated with his family at the age of 2 to Palestine, which was then under British control. He served in the Royal Navy during World War II and the Israeli navy during Israel's 1948 war of independence.

He and his brother turned their father's small Haifa-based shipping firm into one of the world's largest, purchasing their first ship in 1950.

A philanthropist and collector of Impressionist art, the notoriously press-shy Ofer — widely recognized for his trademark goggle-like eyeglasses — in recent years spent much of his time in Monte Carlo before settling back in Israel.

Services will be held Sunday in Tel Aviv.

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