A proposal to divert Roman Abramovich’s £2.34 billion Chelsea sale fund to Israel rather than Ukraine was discussed after the Hamas terrorist attack, Telegraph Sport can reveal.
The UK is understood to have turned down the high-level suggestion, with ministers believing it had been a move by the sanctioned oligarch to avoid condemnation in Russia.
Abramovich first promised proceeds for “all Ukraine war victims” after putting Chelsea up for sale on March 2 last year, eight days before facing sanctions over alleged links to Vladimir Putin.
However, with the huge fund untouched in a frozen account amid UK-Europe insistence that it is spent solely inside Ukraine’s borders, alternative proposals for his assets were privately raised.
Sources close to talks offer opposing views over whether the idea to spend the money in Israel was raised by Abramovich himself or by the country, where he was granted citizenship in 2018.
One insider with close knowledge of the UK’s position says potential disapproval in Moscow explains why the fund remains in limbo in a frozen London bank account after 18 months. “Abramovich doesn’t want the opprobrium in Russia for spending it in Ukraine,” the insider said of the current impasse. As well as potentially using the money for humanitarian causes in Israel after October 7, it was claimed that Abramovich also tabled the option of helping victims of the February earthquake in Turkey, where he has also had recent links.
Other sources say Israel led discussions about the plan and that Abramovich had no knowledge of them. “There are no such formal requests,” said another figure close to talks.
That person, speaking on condition of anonymity, added: “I know that during state visits, Israelis asked the UK, because Roman is such a big donor in Israel, if they would consider giving a licence for any assets of his, not just Chelsea, to be donated towards reconstruction in Israel.”
The funds would have been earmarked for expenditure on humanitarian causes in the south of Israel. “My understanding is that the UK Government told Israel a firm no,” the source added.
Prior to being sanctioned last year, Abramovich’s ties with Israel had become increasingly close. One project signed off prior to Russia’s war on Ukraine was to fund the planting of a forest in southern Israel dedicated to Lithuanian Jews who fell victim to the Holocaust.
Reports on Abramovich’s family background in Lithuania are patchy. However, his parents and relatives are known to have hailed from the country, but left for Siberia during the Soviet occupation in 1941.
Biggest single humanitarian donation in history
The sudden proposal to use the Chelsea funds for causes unrelated to Ukraine illustrate how far the Government remains from signing off the biggest single humanitarian donation in history.
Despite the sale of the club taking place entirely within UK jurisdiction, ministers signed a unilateral declaration in May with the European Commission stating the money would be spent “exclusively” within Ukraine. That move bemused the humanitarian sector as Mike Penrose, a former UK chief executive of Unicef, was brought in to create an independent foundation on the basis that it would be spent on “Ukraine and its consequences”.
Penrose has set up legal undertakings to make sure the money cannot fall back into the hands of Abramovich. The Government will have board input and Jan Egeland, a senior Norwegian diplomat who once advised Kofi Annan at the United Nations, has been brought in as interim chairman of the foundation.
Lord Cameron’s recent appointment as Foreign Secretary, however, has led to renewed efforts to have the funds released in line with Penrose’s plan. “The unilateral declaration can be withdrawn at any time,” explained Penrose. “This is a former Prime Minister who had increased Britain’s standing in terms of humanitarian work. His partnerships of the past put Britain as probably the leading humanitarian nation on the planet. I am looking forward to speaking to him when he’s back from his initial trips, and I’m quite hopeful that he will have the vision to make this work.”
That call was backed by James Deneslow, head of the conflict team at Save the Children, who told Telegraph Sport: “With a new Foreign Secretary in place, we will continue to advocate for this vast amount of sanctioned money to be used to support the humanitarian consequences of the war in Ukraine.
“As we have maintained, the funds must be released and should be made available to all victims of the war in Ukraine — whether that is within Ukraine’s geographical borders, supporting Ukrainian refugees in Europe or funding food programmes in East Africa, where food insecurity has been exacerbated by the war.”
The licence granted by the UK Government setting out the next stage in this process expires on Nov 30. This has been extended by a joint agreement in the past and it is all but certain to be extended yet again.
Penrose said he had yet to deal with Cameron directly since he was appointed Foreign Secretary, but a meeting would be arranged in the coming weeks.
The difference of opinion on the purposes of the foundation predates the Chelsea sale to a consortium led by American businessman Todd Boehly, which was completed on May 30 last year. Sources close to the process said Abramovich had signed a deed of undertaking with the Government stating the charity would be for “Ukraine and the consequences of Ukraine”.
However, in a unilateral declaration, the Government stated last year: “The Treasury will only issue a licence which ensures that such proceeds are used for exclusively humanitarian purposes in Ukraine.” Saleh Saeed, of the Disasters Emergency Committee, also supported Penrose’s position that the humanitarian need extends beyond the borders of Ukraine.
Kate Cavalier, 44, who has been hosting a family of Ukrainians for 15 months at her home in England, also appealed for Cameron to intervene.
The Government rejects any suggestion it has been sitting on the money, with multiple sources telling Telegraph Sport they believe it was the agreement from the outset to spend the money only inside Ukraine. One insider with knowledge of talks said they thought it unlikely Cameron would adopt a new Government position, insisting “this money was meant always for Ukraine”.
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