Sami Ofer, a prominent Israeli businessman and philanthropist whose family's maritime firms have been at the center of a brewing controversy over alleged violations of U.S. sanctions on trade with Iran, has died at his apartment in Tel Aviv. The State Department has accused the Ofer Brother Group of selling a tanker via a Singapore-based subsidiary to the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines. The Israeli press has turned up additional evidence suggesting that the company had been doing more extensive business with Iran than the alleged 2010 transaction.
Sami Ofer was 89 years old, and had reportedly suffered from cancer, Israeli journalists said. He and his brother, Yuli, were ranked among Israel's wealthiest businessmen.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed remorse at Ofer's death and praised his contributions to his country, which Ofer immigrated to in 1924 from Romania.
"He contributed much to the public in the fields of health, culture and art," Netanyahu said. "Ofer was a Zionist through and through and he did not forget his commitment to others when he reached the top."
Israeli media have reported that ships operating for Ofer-owned firms and subsidiaries have docked several times over the past decade at Iranian ports. It has also been reported that the Ofers cooperated with Israeli intelligence services, although the specific transaction the United States exposed does not appear to have been officially condoned by the Israeli government.
Born in Romania in 1922, Ofer immigrated with his family to then Palestine in 1924. "He served in the Royal Navy during World War II and the Israeli Sea Corps during the War of Independence in 1948," the Jerusalem Post reported. Ofer, who worked as a shipping agent with Eastern Conglomerate before buying his first ship in 1950, grew his maritime shipping empire into a $3.6 billion business, the paper said. The Ofer Brothers Group subsidiary Zim is currently ranked the 10th largest shipping company in the world. Another one of the company's subsidiaries is the Royal Caribbean cruise line.
Sami Ofer, who was ranked Israel's wealthiest man by Forbes Magazine the past four years, was also one of the world's major art collectors. Among his acquisitions: a painting by Vincent Van Gogh he reportedly paid $40 million for at a 2006 auction.
An Ofer family publicist Motti Scherf told Israel's Globe business news wire in a statement: "Sammy loved life, had a sophisticated sense of humor and laughing was an important part of his life even though he was always busy with his business. He was a really exceptional man." He's survived by his wife, two sons, eight grandchildren and one great grandchild.
(In this Aug. 28, 2007 photo Israeli business tycoons Yuli Ofer, left, and his brother Sammy Ofer, right, attend a cornerstone laying ceremony for a medical center they donated the money for at a Tel Aviv hospital. Sammy Ofer, an Israeli businessman at the center of a recent scandal involving trade with Iran, has died at age 89. Moti Kimhi, Haaretz/AP)