Israel seeks Swiss help in overseas tax crackdown

By John Miller and Oliver Hirt
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Israel seeks Swiss help in overseas tax crackdown

FILE PHOTO: A flag of Israel is pictured at the United Nations in Geneva

By John Miller and Oliver Hirt

ZURICH (Reuters) - Israel's finance ministry has sought help from Switzerland in identifying Israelis it believes have undeclared assets at Union Bancaire Privee (UBP) and Bank Julius Baer, Swiss government documents show.

UBP said on Wednesday it is cooperating fully with authorities, while the Swiss Federal Tax Administration is seeking contact addresses for the account holders and giving them 20-days to provide the data, in advance of deciding whether to assist Israel in its hunt for untaxed money.

Thousands of Israelis have disclosed foreign accounts containing billions of dollars under a government amnesty programme in recent years, as they sought to avoid prosecution in a crackdown on unreported capital.

Untaxed money in accounts in Switzerland has been a target for foreign governments for years, with U.S. authorities successfully securing billions of dollars in settlements and penalties from Swiss banks since 2008.

The documents outlining actions involving UBP, published in the Swiss Federal Register on Tuesday, outlines the Israeli Finance Ministry's efforts to identify Israelis with accounts at the private bank between 2014 and 2017 who it alleges have failed to provide sufficient evidence of tax compliance.

A similar document addressing accounts at Bank Julius Baer, which declined to comment, was made public earlier this month.

The Federal Register documents show that in both instances the private banks asked account holders with an Israeli address to document their tax compliance. Those who did not show sufficient evidence were told their business relationship with the bank would be terminated.

"UBP is one of the banks that have received a request from the Swiss tax authorities acting on a demand from the Israeli tax authorities, and has taken the necessary measures to abide by this request," the Geneva-based private bank said.

"UBP has actively promoted Israel's tax amnesty programs," the bank said, adding it had also done so for similar disclosure programs in Mexico, Brazil and Turkey.


'FISHING EXPEDITION'

Switzerland has forged agreements with numerous other nations to automatically exchange bank information amid scrutiny of its role in managing offshore wealth.

Swiss banks cannot deliver account information directly to other governments, only to the Swiss tax authorities, who may then transfer it to a requesting tax agency.

Precisely what information Swiss banks must disclose to other governments remains unsettled.

Switzerland's highest court is still to decide on France's demand for UBS, the largest Swiss bank and the world's largest wealth manager, to hand over sensitive customer data, or whether to dismiss the request as a "fishing expedition".

A French court found UBS guilty of illegally soliciting clients and money laundering in February, although UBS is fighting the 4.5 billion euros ($5.11 billion) verdict.

($1 = 0.8804 euros)


(Reporting by John Miller; Editing by Alexander Smith)