Lev Leviev: the Jewish Indiana Jones

We profile Israel's richest man, who owns everything from housing projects in the former Soviet Union to 7-Elevens - but will always be remembered for single-handedly smashing the De Beers diamond cartel.

When Lev Leviev's first son, Shalom, was born in 1978, Leviev circumcised the baby himself. He was 22, and had never studied the art of circumcision, let alone performed one. His father told him to practice on a chicken leg, but Lev felt no need. "I was a diamond cutter after all. It's not that different."

Thirty years on, says The New York Times, he has carried out more than a thousand circumcisions many on the sons of his employees. Now Israel's richest man, he owns everything from housing projects in the former Soviet Union to a string of 7-Elevens in Texas. But he will always be remembered as the man who single-handledly smashed the De Beers diamond cartel.

It's said that a third of all diamonds sold are cut and polished by Leviev's firm, LLD. The stones in his stores on Bond Street and Madison Avenue "are held to be among the finest anywhere", says the Evening Standard. Leviev made headlines last week when it came to light that he is buying Britain's most expensive new-build house a £35m Hampstead pile, complete with indoor pool-cum-ballroom and a fireplace modelled on the one at Cliveden. Yet the story of his rise is far more compelling than any amount of property porn.

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"Part Indiana Jones, part Macchiavelli", with a judicious dash of fundamentalist Hebrew theology thrown in, he's a power-player extraordinaire, counting Vladimir Putin, several African presidents and sundry Russian oligarchs among his close friends. Leviev has a complicated relationship with his former homeland. Born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, to a Bukharian Jewish family, his earliest emotion was fear; not just of his Muslim neighbours, but of the Soviet government. "Just being Jewish was dangerous."

In 1971, when he was 15, the family emigrated to Israel. Leviev became an apprentice diamond-cutter, bribing fellow workers to show him every secret of the trade. "I just wanted to make money... I never doubted I'd be rich." By his mid-20s he was running his own business.

De Beers, the Oppenheimer family-controlled syndicate that ruled the global diamond trade took him on as one of only 100 people permitted to buy quantities of unfinished diamonds. Leviev "bristled under the Syndicate's high-handed treatment of buyers", forming an "intense hatred" of De Beers, says Forbes. He determined to source his own rough diamonds and cultivated rising politicians in the unravelling Soviet Union. The result was a joint-venture with the Russian state to mine and supply diamonds to local factories, bypassing De Beers. When the factories were privatised, Leviev somehow emerged as the exclusive owner.

Yet Russia was only the curtain-raiser to Leviev's defining skirmish with the Syndicate, which took place in war-torn Angola, home to the notorious blood-diamond trade. He prepared the ground meticulously, befriending President Dos Santos's ambitious, Westminster-educated daughter, Isobel. "Few were privy to the long conversations between Leviev and Isobel in the Angolan capital, Luanda, in 1999," says the Evening Standard. "But by the end of them nothing was quite the same again in the diamond trade." In 2000, the Angolan government ended the De Beers' monopoly, inspiring others to follow suit. "When he succeeded in Russia, and then in Angola, others saw it and were suddenly emboldened," a fellow Tel Aviv trader told the New York Times. "That's how Leviev cracked the De Beers cartel: with the instincts of a tiger and the balls of a panther."

Lev Leviev: philanthropist with political ambitions

Leviev boasts that he is the only tycoon with interests in every stage of diamond production, from "mine to mistress", says The Economist. His firms mine the diamonds in Angola, Namibia and Russia, then cut, polish and sell them wholesale and retail. But the real engine driving his wealth (put at around £4bn) is his infrastructure and property group, Africa Israel, which is building several vast projects in Russia and Israel, and moving hard into Manhattan real estate.

A committed member of the Brooklyn-based Hasidic group, Chabad, his links with New York run deep. The ultra-conservative group centres on the teaching of the late Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, whom some hold to have been the messiah. Leviev doesn't go that far, but his loyalty to Chabad and its founder is unquestioning. "The rebbe is my role model, and my values are his values." He only embarked on his Russian venture after winning Schneerson's blessing. Go ahead, said the Rabbi. "But don't forget to help the Jews".

Leviev never has. A father of nine, he is one of the world's most prolific philanthropists, giving away $50m a year, much of it to Jewish schools and institutions in the former Soviet bloc. Still, he's hardly immune to criticism, says the Evening Standard. There are claims (all denied) that "his operations are creating misery" in Africa, and many see his move to London as a tax dodge.

"However much Leviev has, he is hungry for more," says The New York Times: his business role model is Bill Gates and his main ambition is to join the Forbes rich list's "starting ten". He may also be nursing political ambitions in Israel. "Would I like to be prime minister?" he muses. "I might. When I turn 60."