When Vanessa Abittan, a mother of six from Ra’anana, won Israel’s “Master Chef” reality TV show on Saturday night, few of the 700,000 viewers knew that she had a secret.
The impeccably groomed 43-year-old, with French-accented Hebrew and an adorably ditzy personality, told viewers that she worked part-time for her husband’s real estate business, writing French-language brochures for their largely French-speaking clientele. She claimed to have immigrated to Israel from France over a decade ago out of love for the country and a desire to “be Israeli.”
But when a French-speaking reporter for Channel 13 news, Emmanuelle Elbaz-Phelps, tuned into the Master Chef finale on Saturday night, she was shocked to discover the identity of Vanessa’s husband.
There in the audience, cheering her on, was Eddie Abittan, a man convicted in absentia by France for two separate instances of a fraudulent scheme that together netted over $400 million. The two schemes were part of the scam known as carbon-VAT fraud, carried out in 2008 and 2009, which has been dubbed “the swindle of the century” in France.
Elbaz-Phelps immediately recognized Abittan as she had prepared a report about the scam two years ago.
The carbon tax scheme consists of about 15 related cases. Abittan was convicted in two of those, according to a report in the French investigative magazine Mediapart. He was convicted in one, nicknamed Belleville (in which $285 million was stolen from the French government), on July 7, 2016, and in a second case, known as Crepuscule (in which $155 million was stolen from the French government), on September 13, 2017. Each time, he was sentenced to six years in prison.
Abittan was tried in absentia as he never showed up for his trials and was believed by French prosecutors to be in Israel. Two Interpol arrest warrants were reportedly issued for him.
Abittan’s appearance on Israeli TV shocked many French journalists who reported the story widely on Wednesday.
“Almost none of the money from the carbon VAT was found,” Fabrice Arfi, a reporter for Mediapart, told Channel 13, “so it’s surprising to see Abittan enjoying life.”
A recent profile of Vanessa Abittan in Israel Hayom described the couple’s house in Ra’anana as “resembling a home in a prestigious French magazine: immaculate, with great attention to detail and inviting designer sofas as well as candles lit in the middle of the day and emitting a pleasant fragrance.”
According to one of the French courts that convicted him, Abittan “played a major role at the top of this fraud, participating in the establishment of shell companies in Hong Kong, and benefited substantially from the proceeds.”
The Times of Israel contacted Yuval Kaplinsky, the head of the international department in the state prosecutor’s office, to ask why Abittan has not been extradited to France to serve his sentence.
Kaplinsky’s spokesperson, Efrat Oren, responded that “the international department does not provide information on extradition requests, whether they have been received or not, unless there are public extradition proceedings taking place in court.”
In Israel, the Abittan family owns a real estate company, Kerem Beit Yosef, that constructs, owns and manages several luxury buildings in Tel Aviv, Netanya and elsewhere.
The failure of Israeli police and prosecutors to tackle the minority of French speakers who carry out white-collar crime has led to a widespread crime problem in some French-speaking communities.
A lawyer for Eddie Abittan told Mediapart on Tuesday that his client’s appearance in the audience of the “Master Chef” show was “possibly imprudent, but in no way a provocation. Of course, Eddie Abittan is aware of his conviction in France. For him, Israel is a bit like an open prison, in which he is locked. He cannot travel. People on arrest warrants like him do not necessarily feel free.”
His wife, Vanessa, has become such a popular television personality that she was hired as a spokesmodel by a local fashion brand, Crazy Line.