In a cage made of fortified glass, under heavy security, smiling in his orange jumpsuit, is Yitzhak Abergil. The reading glasses he wears from time to time, and the hearing aid tucked into his ear might give the mistaken impression of gentleness or physical incapacity: For decades, he was considered Israel’s most dangerous criminal, the undisputed king of the underworld, the man who could make you tremble with fear with just one look. But now the fear is dissipating as, one by one, the people closest to Abergil take the stand and tell the stories of how he headed a murderous international crime syndicate that left behind a trail of mutilated bodies, some belonging to fellow criminals who dared to question the king, some of them innocent bystanders who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The trial has been dragging on for three years, and Abergil just sits there, inside his aquarium, watching the collapse of his empire through bulletproof glass. After so many years of surveillance and wiretaps, the police and the prosecutors believe that, this time, they’ve got him. They’re familiar with the famous quote from The Wire: “When you come at the king, you best not miss.”
Working under the codename Case Number 512, the police and the prosecution have recruited seven key witnesses whose job is to bring down three of the country’s mightiest crime organizations. Of those, Abergil’s is considered the largest, the wealthiest, and the cruelest. Abergil’s indictment could keep several Hollywood screenwriters busy; it provides a frightening peek into the expansion of Israel’s organized crime to the rest of the world, including forays into the global trade in cocaine and ecstasy, extortion, gambling, money laundering, a string of unsolved murders, mysterious explosions, and innocent people paying with their lives along the way.
In recent testimony that lasted two days and captivated the Israeli public, Abergil shared with the world the story of how he grew from a scrawny kid in a hard-hit neighborhood in Israel to one of international crime’s most fearsome figures. “It was 1974,” he recalled in one part of his testimony, “I was 5 years old, and we’d go to bomb shelters that were better furnished and cozier than our homes. My job was to hide the guns. … I’d draw a triangle, I’d draw a circle, all sorts of markings so I could tell which gun was whose. I didn’t know how to read or write. My mother worked three jobs, cleaning homes in the morning, caring for other people’s children in the afternoon, and washing dishes in the evening. She’d rarely be home before 1 a.m., so we had to fend for ourselves, because my father was an alcoholic who would wake up and start doing shots. So us kids, we would help each other, we would steal but we would give something to those who didn’t steal as well.”
Shmaya Angel, one of Israel’s original crime bosses, took Abergil under his wing during an early stint in prison, teaching him to read and giving him his first taste of books. Two works in particular enchanted the young hoodlum: Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. The latter, Abergil said in his testimony, “slapped me in the face, as if it shattered the way of life in which I believed.” Suddenly, he added, he realized that his decision to become a criminal was just that—a decision, informed by childhood circumstance.
The police argue that Abergil is far from the reborn philosopher-king he portrays himself to be. At the center of Case Number 512 is the underworld war that was waged in the 2000s between Abergil and his bitterest foe during those years, Ze’ev “The Wolf” Rosenstein. Large sums of money were spent, blood was spilled, and Rosenstein and Abergil were both designated as drug lords by the DEA, the Pablo Escobars of Israel. Each man in his turn was then extradited to the United States, where they were convicted of international drug trafficking. At their request, they’re doing their time in Israeli prisons.
Rosenstein, 64, is believed to be retired these days, given his lengthy prison sentence and the disintegration of his criminal enterprise. He will be eligible for parole soon, and hopes to gain an early release, while Abergil, who is only 49, is entangled in the mega-trial surrounding Case Number 512. He might, he now understands, spend the rest of his life behind bars.
Israel, which loves calling itself the Start-up Nation because of its impressive accomplishments in high tech, is also an exporter of highly organized and deadly crime. In 2016, the Israeli news site Mako estimated that organized crime in Israel generated as much as NIS 50 billion, or US$14 billion, each year. Israel’s crime families now have branches in Europe, America, Africa, Australia, and Asia.
As Israeli crime families have gone global, they have exported the gruesome methods they perfected in Israel, which borrow liberally from the methods of terrorist organizations, including detonating explosive devices in the heart of major cities. Last November’s crime wars, for example, began when a car exploded while it was being driven in the South of Tel Aviv, killing two men. Less than 48 hours later, another vehicle, this one speeding down the highway, exploded as well, killing another man. The police believe both cases to be the result of the Israeli mob’s score settling.
A few days later, assailants armed with semi-automatics opened fire on two prisons, an act that is believed to have been designed to send a message to the authorities that members of a certain crime organization were displeased with the conditions of their imprisonment. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu commented on the incident, saying, “this is not the Wild West.” He would’ve done better phrasing his statement as a question.