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CNN Today

Rich Pardon Justified According to Many in Israel

Aired February 20, 2001 - 4:23 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: Following up on the former president, Mr. Clinton, and the controversy about the pardons that he offered. Federal prosecutors indicted Marc Rich, the financier, in 1983 on charges of tax evasion, fraud and taking part in illegal oil deals in Iran. But before he could face trial, Rich left the United States and then settled in Switzerland.

The head of Rich's foundation in Israel says the pardon ordered by Bill Clinton was justified. CNN's Ben Wedeman has more on that.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Avner Azulay has friends in high places: Friends in the U.S. and Israel who lent their support for the effort to win a presidential pardon for fugitive financier Marc Rich. A former Mossad agent and managing director of Rich's charitable foundation, Azulay collected letters and testimonials praising Rich and sent them to President Bill Clinton.

AVNER AZULAY, DIRECTOR, RICH FOUNDATION: We asked for help through normal channels. They considered the case. They saw the man had a lot of merits. There was a lot of merits to the case, and if they helped, and they did, there is no problem with that. I don't see any problem with that.

WEDEMAN: But for many Israeli and Jewish-American leaders, there is a problem. They say Jonathan Pollard, behind bars for passing highly sensitive U.S. military secrets to Israel, was far more deserving of a presidential pardon. While others, including Jewish- American leaders visiting Jerusalem, accuse former President Bill Clinton of shifting the blame for the pardon onto Israel.

RONALD LAUDER, AMERICAN JEWISH ORG.: We feel that he should not have used Israel. This is a legal question, and Marc Rich was someone on America's 10 Most Wanted.

WEDEMAN: And at the time of his pardon, he was still a fugitive. But to Israelis, he was a generous donor to a variety of social and cultural institutions, acknowledged by Israel's prime minister.

EHUD BARAK, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: And the great philanthropists who have make this possible, including (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and Marc Rich WEDEMAN: In this case, for his support of a program designed to give young American Jews the opportunity to visit Israel. The fugitive was there, but just another face in the crowd. Rich also helped finance a new wing of the Tel Aviv Art Museum, named after his daughter, who died of leukemia. The museum didn't ask too many questions about the money.

JANET INBAR, TEL AVIV MUSEUM: It's not the person's history or anything about them, but it's their interests as they dovetail with what the museum is looking for.

WEDEMAN: Rich also assisted Israeli intelligence, the Mossad, in helping Jews leave Ethiopia, Iran, Yemen and the former Soviet Union. For this, say supporters, Rich deserved the pardon.

MAYOR EHUD OLMERT, JERUSALEM: Israel owes him. Those people who are familiar with the facts felt that we owe him, and that's why we signed this request.

WEDEMAN: The fuss over the Rich pardon is seen here as a passing cloud here.

JOSEPH ALPHER, FRM. MOSSAD OFFICER: It's a stain. It's a blot. It's unpleasant. I don't think it's going to have any important long- term effect on the ongoing Israeli-American relationship.

WEDEMAN (on camera): Most people here are focused on the ongoing efforts to form a national unity government, on trying to maintain a semblance of normality after nearly five months of bloody clashes. The controversy over the Rich pardon to many here is a tempest in a very distant teapot.

Ben Wedeman, CNN, Jerusalem.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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