Israel’s mob wars

JERUSALEM — The extradition of a suspected Israeli mob boss to face drug charges in Miami and New York is drawing new attention to Israel’s increasingly brazen underworld, where gangsters have bombed busy streets and fired anti-tank missiles.

Israel’s mob turf is so dangerous that the State Department has issued a travel advisory warning Americans of the dangers of the infighting.

One top gangster, Zeev Rosenstein, was extradited to the United States on Monday for involvement in a drug ring that allegedly distributed more than 1 million Ecstasy pills in Miami and New York. He’s expected to be arraigned in federal court in Miami on Tuesday.

U.S. prosecutors have called the short, squat Rosenstein one of the world’s most wanted drug traffickers, and he’s long been called No. 1 on Israel’s most-wanted list.

The best known of Israel’s underworld kingpins, Rosenstein has eluded convictions except for a single stretch in prison.

Showing footage of Rosenstein boarding an El Al Israel Airlines plane early Monday, Channel 10 TV called the extradition “the end of an era of Israeli crime” and “the final chapter in a 20-year cat-and-mouse game between Rosenstein and Israeli police.”

Rosenstein, 51, has survived at least seven assassination attempts. Bystanders were not so lucky. In December 2003, rivals set off a bomb on a Tel Aviv street, aiming for Rosenstein. He escaped with scratches, but three passers-by were killed and 18 were wounded.

Accustomed to violence with its Palestinian neighbors, Israelis had traditionally felt relatively safe from violent crime. But in recent years, the mob wars also have people fearing for their lives.

Israeli Police Commissioner Moshe Karadi compared the mob families to Palestinian militant groups who have killed hundreds of Israelis in shooting and bombing attacks in recent years.

“The criminal organizations’ activities have escalated and certainly undermine the public’s feeling of security,” Karadi wrote last year. “Our approach to these organizations needs to be exactly like our approach to terror groups.”

A travel advisory issued by the State Department last week cited an October 2005 incident in which a bomb destroyed a Tel Aviv apartment building, killing three people and wounding five. “Such incidents in the past have involved the use of bombs, grenades, anti-tank missiles, and small arms fire,” the statement said.

Arieh Amit, a former top police commander and currently an international security consultant, said violent crime in Israel is at its most dangerous point ever.

“There has always been organized crime, it’s just that the level of their professionalism has developed. They are much wealthier, much more violent and much more daring than ever before,” he said.

Amit said the Israeli police force has gotten smaller and weaker in recent years and has found it difficult to keep up with the sophisticated criminals.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said authorities have set up a joint task force of detectives, justice officials and tax authorities, in an attempt to catch the criminals on tax violations – the way Eliot Ness ultimately took down Al Capone.

“This is a long-term battle that requires plenty of patience. It won’t be decided by ‘knock out,’ but rather by points,” he said.

Most of the violence in recent years has allegedly revolved around rival families battling for control of lucrative gambling operations. Israel, with a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union, is also considered a major outpost of Russian organized crime.

The most public feuds, and most heavily reported, have pit Rosenstein and his ally, Assi Abutbul, against two rival clans – the Abarjils and the Alperons.

On Dec. 22, gangsters fired an anti-tank missile at Abutbul’s car, next to his home in an upscale neighborhood near the coastal city of Netanya. The missile missed its target but frightened neighbors.

The saga that has captured the most public attention in recent months, though, has been the “Alperon affair.”

On Jan. 2, an arbitration summit in the lobby of a hotel north of Tel Aviv turned violent as knives and guns were drawn, forcing hotel guests to flee in terror. Amir Mulner, an up-and-coming star in Israel’s underworld, emerged from the encounter with a stab wound to the neck.

The alleged assailant, Yaakov Alperon – known informally as “Don Alperon” – quickly disappeared, along with his teenage son, Dror, who reportedly came to his father’s rescue in the lobby. Police searched the country for two months before both Alperons struck a deal to turn themselves in.

Both father and son have since been questioned and released on bail, but the mob wars seem far from over.

“If the families don’t resolve their dispute, scores will definitely be settled,” Amit said of the Alperons.

Rosenstein’s case is not the first time Israel has kicked out a wanted man. The late U.S. crime figure Meyer Lansky, who had a lucrative mob career in casino gambling and money laundering, was expelled in 1972, two years after he fled to Israel to avoid U.S prosecution on tax charges.