Over the decades, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has cultivated an image as a tough-talking leader in the global struggle against terrorism. That reputation could be put to the test this month in a landmark court case that could force him to choose between supporting victims of Palestinian violence and risking a diplomatic rift with China.
Netanyahu’s government must decide whether to allow a former Israeli security official to testify as a star witness who could tip the scales in the case, filed by families of victims of suicide bombers who accuse Bank of China of facilitating “terrorist” funding via accounts in the US.
Critics say that after initially encouraging the claims against the bank, Israel is now having second thoughts, fearing it could jeopardize valuable trade ties with China if it allows the former official, who is sworn to secrecy, to testify.
“Israel has to decide whether they are fighting terrorism and continuing the struggle, which they initiated ... or collapsing to the pressure of China and abandoning the terror victims,” said Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, an Israeli lawyer involved in the case.
Darshan-Leitner is representing the families of 22 people who were killed in Palestinian suicide bombings.
The families accuse the government-owned Bank of China, through its US branches, of serving as a key conduit in transfers of money to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Palestinian groups that have killed hundreds of Israelis.
The family of Daniel Wultz, a 16-year-old American who was killed in a 2006 suicide bombing in Tel Aviv carried out by Islamic Jihad, is pursuing a separate, but related case against the bank.
The families are seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in damages in US courts. With claims based in part on US anti-terrorism laws, a verdict against the bank could also potentially affect its ability to do business in the US.
While these cases are legally separate, they all depend heavily on the testimony of a former Israeli official named Uzi Shaya.
The ex-counterterrorism agent has emerged as a key witness in determining how much Bank of China knew about the financial transfers.
According to court documents, Shaya was part of a delegation of Israeli counterterrorism officials who met with Chinese officials in April 2005, warning them that Hamas and Islamic Jihad were transferring large sums of money to their militants through Bank of China. At that meeting, the Israelis asked Chinese officials to “take action” to prevent further transfers.
Shaya is scheduled to appear for questioning in New York on Nov. 25, but the Israeli government has not yet said whether it will allow him to go.
US District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin, who is hearing the case, said at a July hearing that Israel’s position could be a “make-or-break decision” for the case.
“This may be the only person who really has the knowledge as to what transpired at the meeting,” a transcript reads.
In an Aug. 29 letter to lawyers for the plaintiffs, Shaya said he wanted to testify, but did not yet have permission to do so.
“In light of my moral and national obligation and my commitment to the war on terror, I am inclined to give a deposition,” he wrote. “However, thus far, the State of Israel has not yet formulated its final position on the matter.”
Darshan-Leitner said she is hopeful Shaya will appear, only because she has not heard otherwise.