Exclusive – Dan Gertler: ‘Everyone was afraid of the Congo, but not me’

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Dan Gertler: God, the Congo, and him

By Mathieu Olivier, Romain Gras, Special correspondent in Tel-Aviv
Posted on Tuesday, 23 August 2022 15:31, updated on Wednesday, 24 August 2022 12:59

When did the Israeli businessman set his sights on the DRC? How did he meet Joseph Kabila? What role did he play in the country's political development? With the help of unpublished documents and an exclusive interview, we delve deep into the mystery of this copper, cobalt and diamond magnate.

This is part 1 of a 4-part series

It all started with a cup of coffee on a Parisian terrace. One of those allongés that you order to prolong the pleasures of discussion. The conversation was not about Dan Gertler. Our interlocutor, a jack-of-all-trades in African affairs, had invited us to discuss another project. The name of the Israeli billionaire did not come up until an hour later. At the beginning of 2020, Gertler was placed under sanctions for two years by the US. Reportedly close to Joseph Kabila, he has recently had to deal with Félix Tshisekedi’s government.

The man only speaks to the press once a decade. His confidants are told to keep quiet, and he prefers the company of rabbis to that of socialites, the atmosphere of synagogues to that of press rooms. Therefore, when our interlocutor mentioned the possibility of meeting the mysterious Israeli, we nodded enthusiastically. Facing accusations from all sides, shaken by the sanctions imposed by the US Treasury, which charged him with having built his fortune through corruption and at the expense of the Congolese people, Gertler wanted to explain himself. An interview could even be arranged in the next few weeks.

‘Welcome to the Holy Land’

It ended up taking two years. On 25 May 2022, in Tel Aviv, we finally got out of a vehicle in front of the billionaire’s residence. Until the last minute, the Covid-19 pandemic and the Israeli’s mistrust almost jeopardised our meeting. Thus Bnei Brak almost feels like a promised land. In this very religious neighbourhood, where nearly 90% of electors voted for ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties in the last legislative elections, Gertler has built a five-storey house that almost goes unnoticed.

He is part of the community, he scrupulously observes the Sabbath and prays several times a day. As we passed through the gate, the billionaire, wearing a navy suit and white shirt, greeted us with a broad smile over a full beard.

When we had met him two days earlier at his office, located not far from the diamond exchange, he had said in English “welcome to the holy land”, before slipping away.

This time, he introduced us to his wife and some of his 12 children, and then pushed us into a lift. The destination? His study. It is as big as that of a head of state.

A large desk, a meeting table, an adjoining living room, all lit by two imposing chandeliers. On the walls, there are paintings of religious scenes. On the furniture, precious books. Torahs, of course. With a sweeping gesture, Gertler pointed to a leather sofa and sat down in an armchair, facing two of his collaborators – the attentive custodians of his truth. Between us, on a low table, was a basin filled with 15 emerald-coloured copper pebbles. These, of course, came from mines in the DRC.

However, this Israeli man, so close to the DRC, was not born in copper, but in diamonds. When he was born in 1973, his grandfather, Moshe Schnitzer, was president and founder of the Israel Diamond Exchange, which he had been running for six years. The grandfather, who emigrated from Romania to Palestine in the mid-1930s, was a major figure in the young country’s economy. His fortune is immense. His son, Shmuel, is preparing to succeed him while his daughter, Hanna, and son-in-law Asher Gertler – Dan’s parents – are in business.

Crown Prince

In the diamond industry, the Schnitzers are considered kings. At a public school in Tel Aviv in the 1980s, Dan held the coveted rank of crown prince. The future billionaire had a flair for numbers and excelled in mathematics. Scientifically inclined, he was not yet passionate about religious issues. He was also raised on stories of his father’s exploits on the football fields of Maccabi Tel Aviv, where Asher Gertler was goalkeeper in the 1960s. Dan, who was also quite talented, preferred the left-back position, which he played for a time in the youth teams of Beitar Tel Aviv, another club in the capital.

He and his grandfather shared the same DNA: the DNA that drives a businessman to build his company

“It was Kylian Mbappé or Speedy Gonzales,” says Ofer, his childhood friend. The Problem: Dan is asthmatic, and the business world attracted him more than football.

Another career awaited him. He already wandered around his grandfather’s offices and factories, trained in diamond trading and cutting, and, like other little hands in the family, was busy folding brifka, the papers in which precious stones are wrapped and in which the number of carats is written.

After completing his two and a half years of compulsory military service, he went into business. He had two choices: join the family company or try his hand at something more exotic.

“He already had a singular mindset,” says Ofer. “When he looks at a wooden chair, he wonders not only how it was made, but from which forest it came, and what infrastructure made it possible to exploit that forest.”

Dan Gertler (right) and his grandfather, businessman Moshe Schnitzer. © DR

Dan Gertler decided to strike out on his own. It wasn’t a risky choice: he has a colossal family fortune behind him. In the mid-1990s, he travelled to Belgium, India, Liberia and Angola to buy precious stones and put them on the market in Israel. Others would have preferred to live in Antwerp, the world’s diamond centre, where the Israelis still hold a lot of power. He travelled the globe to find the best products in the most dangerous areas, much to the astonishment of those around him.

“He and his grandfather shared the same DNA: the DNA that drives a businessman to build his company. Moshe Schnitzer had built the Israeli economy. Dan wanted to imitate him in another field,” says a family friend. “I told him he was crazy. After all, he would have inherited the leading Israeli diamond company without doing anything.” In the entourage of the future mining magnate, no one really understood why he was doing this.

“One day, I heard that you could buy diamonds in the Congo. I’ve never been a coward, so I tried it,” Gertler says. On the plane from Tel Aviv to Kinshasa, via Germany and South Africa, there were not many businessmen. “They were all afraid of the Congo, but not me,” he says.

Like others in Angola or Sierra Leone, does the Israeli sniff out the opportunities offered by a country in the grip of war and which, moreover, is one of the five biggest diamond producers in the world? No doubt.

‘I fell in love with the country’

The DRC, May 1997. Laurent-Désiré Kabila took power on the 17th of that month. A few days later, after a 20-hour journey, Dan Gertler’s plane landed in Kinshasa. Through the help of Rabbi Shlomo Bentolila, the representative of the Jewish community in Central Africa, who has been well introduced in Kinshasa since 1992, he managed to get a meeting with Joseph Kabila.

They built a rapport immediately. The face-to-face meetings with the general and son of the president increased in frequency, often taking place in military camps, always at the crack of dawn.

“We became like brothers. We talked about life, religion, the development of the country…”, says the Israeli. He soon spent 90% of his time in the DRC. “I fell in love with the country,” he says.

For nearly two years, Gertler scoured the mines, making his mark in the local diamond sector. Then Kabila agreed to introduce him to his father. The appointment was fixed for a Friday, the day before the Sabbath, at the presidential palace. However, when Gertler arrived, the atmosphere was tense. The head of state’s guards intervened. “We were kicked out by security,” the businessman says.

Laurent-Désiré Kabila only received him a few days later. “He told me about the problems he had with diamonds. He felt that the state was not getting enough from exports and he had the idea of setting up a monopoly that would make things easier,” says Gertler. “The government’s interest was to recover as much tax as possible on the diamonds sold,” says one of his associates at the time.

It was a crazy gamble

Dan Gertler enthusiastically embraced the idea. Laurent-Désiré Kabila gave him one month to implement it. He set the price of the monopoly at $20m – a sum that seemed both small and large.

In search of the money, the Israeli returned to his country. The Congolese head of state called him back two days later. The project had to be launched ‘immediately’, a Kabila aide explained on the phone. Kabila was in dire need of money to equip his army, which was confronted with rebellions in the east.

Dan Gertler pulled out all the stops. With the help of his family network, his personal fortune and a bank guarantee from his grandfather at the Bank of Israel, he raised the $20m.

A shocking setback

“It was a crazy gamble. Investing in the DRC, at the time, was not even starting from zero, but from below zero! For someone who had the means to work anywhere else, it didn’t make much sense,” says a partner.

In an April 2001 report, the UN called the monopoly a ‘disaster’ for the diamond industry. “Dan Gertler was given no chance to respond to these accusations,” say those close to him, referring to an “unfair” report.

The ‘gamble’ almost turned out to be a losing one. On 16 January 2001, Laurent-Désiré Kabila was assassinated. Ten days later, his son, Joseph, succeeded him. Gertler could have been delighted, but Joseph Kabila quickly surprised him: He put an end to the monopoly established by his father barely a year earlier. A shocking setback.

Gertler wondered how his “friend”, his “brother” could suspend his monopoly in this way. The Israeli tried to reach the new president by phone. In vain.

He knew that Belgium, the former colonial power, which still had interests in the Congolese mines, had plotted to oust him. Did Kabila give in to this pressure? In any case, he would not go back on his decision but would end up apologising to Gertler, promising him compensation in return. Augustin Katumba Mwanke, ex-governor of Katanga and minister delegate to the presidency, took over the tricky case.

The relationship between the two men, which would subsequently prove to be a great boon to the Gertler’s business, could not have gotten off to a worse start. Gertler was very upset. Of course, the end of the monopoly disrupted his plans. It has also made him lose face with his grandfather, whom he admires so much and who stood surety for him in 1999. The Israeli laid siege to Katumba Mwanke’s office. In desperation, he appealed to Kabila one last time and warned him that if the problem was not resolved, he would end up leaving the country.

‘Friendship has gradually returned’

The threat paid off. The two men agreed on a schedule for compensation. “Friendship has gradually returned,” says a person close to the businessman.

Trust too, especially since Kabila, whose country is plagued by rebellions, needs allies. “Kabila wanted to get closer to Washington, and Dan, who had already offered to help him, had connections,” says one of his associates at the time.

On 6 April 2002, in a letter addressed to President George W. Bush – and which we were able to examine – the Congolese head of state made Gertler his emissary to the US administration.

Dan played a major role in persuading President Kabila to take huge political and security risks

Of the diplomatic dance in which Gertler took part, nobody, or almost nobody, knows anything. “At the beginning of 2002, no one wanted to have anything to do with the DRC, and all the chancelleries supported Rwanda,” says another former associate.

Could Dan Gertler change this? Thanks to his extensive network and the connections of the American Jewish businessman Chaim Lebovits, he had access to the Republican Party in the US. A few months after the attacks of 11 September 2001, George W. Bush sought a diplomatic victory on the African front. Condoleezza Rice, his national security adviser, looked into the issue of the Second Congo War, which had been causing bloodshed in the Great Lakes since 1998.

Mediation

A quartet was formed. On one side, the Dan Gertler-Chaïm Lebovits tandem. On the other, “Condie” Rice and Jendayi Frazer, Bush’s assistant for African affairs. The objective: To establish a channel for discussions between Washington and Kinshasa, and then get the government and the Congolese rebels (supported by Paul Kagame’s Rwanda and Yoweri Museveni’s Uganda) to reach an agreement.

Washington was suspicious. Hadn’t the late Laurent-Désiré Kabila received, a few years earlier, the reinforcement of Cuban fighters led by Che Guevara in person? In spite of these reservations, the task force quietly set to work.

On 17 April 2002, Jendayi Frazer wrote to Joseph Kabila, in the name of President Bush, that a transitional government, including the rebel movements, should be set up. Mediation with Rwandan Paul Kagame is essential, she added. Five days later, Kabila gave his approval. Condie Rice, Dan Gertler and, above all, Jendayi Frazer and Chaïm Lebovits, increased the number of meetings and exchanged hundreds of letters and e-mails.

Letters exchanged between Joseph Kabila and the Bush administration on 6 and 17 April 2002.

“Dan played a major role in persuading President Kabila to take huge political and security risks in order to reach a comprehensive peace agreement, which eventually allowed the transitional government to organise democratic and fair elections, which was historic for the DRC,” says Lebovits.

The quartet eventually proposed a plan for a transitional government with three vice-presidential posts, allocated to the political opposition, the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (of Jean-Pierre Bemba) and the Congolese Rally for Democracy (of Ernest Wamba dia Wamba). “He thought that Kabila would not agree,” says an actor of the time. In reality, the president accepted the plan, on one condition: That there would be a fourth vice-president from his camp.

Sun City

Kabila was protecting himself. Alone at the top of the state, he feared being assassinated. With one of his lieutenants as vice-president, he thought he would gain relative security. Back in Kigali, Gertler and Lebovits presented the latest draft of the project to President Kagame. The latter hesitated, refused, but, under American pressure, finally yielded.

In mid-July 2002, the principle of a ‘1+4’ government was accepted. On 17 December, the government and the belligerents signed a crisis exit agreement. On 2 April 2003, the peace agreements were signed in Sun City, in the presence of South African President Thabo Mbeki.

It is the reason why he has become so powerful in the DRC

Gertler is proud of this little-known story. “It is the reason why he has become so powerful in the DRC,” says one of his close friends.

“The Sun City accords made Kabila and me more than brothers,” Gertler says. From diamonds to cobalt, copper to oil, he became the country’s chief businessman, from whom and to whom money flowed. Too much, perhaps. Though he was at the top of his game, the diamond prince had no idea that America, which had contributed to his fortune, would end up turning against him.

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