A billionaire behind Israeli politics is a Hollywood kingpin

pretty woman producer arnon milchan with peres and netanyahu

From a spy to a movie maker: Arnon Milchan was an arms dealer who helped Israel acquire French helicopters and other military hardware; later he transformed himself into a great Hollywood movie mogul, with contemporary classics such as Pretty Woman and Bohemian Rhapsody. He is seen here with Israeli leaders Shimon Peres and Benjamin Netanyahu

THE ongoing saga about the possible indictment of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for fraud and breach of trust has surprising tentacles, some connected to South Africa. They raise moral dilemmas about the survival of Israel and what it has needed to do over the years to achieve this in a tough world where enemies are waiting around every corner.

A colourful figure and reputed friend of Israeli politicians over many decades who has helped Israel, dating all the way back to David Ben Gurion, is Arnon Milchan. He is a billionaire Hollywood mogul who has produced or co-produced dozens of movie classics, including ‘Pretty Woman,’ and recently ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ He is a one of the greatest Hollywood names of the past few decades.

But he has another significant role aside from the movies: He is also a legendary arms dealer whose name has been well known to Israeli politicians and defence officials over many decades because of his involvement in covert operations for military equipment for Israel when Israel desperately needed this kind of help.

Milchan was connected to a large number of such acquisitions and intelligence operations. When France was a major weapons supplier, Milchan helped arrange helicopters, after the executives of the French manufacturer, Aerospatiale, saw the value of his close connections with powerful Israeli defence people such as Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres. Later, Milchan developed relationships with American manufacturers, involving things like missiles, helicopters, and antitank missiles.

Today, commentators believe police investigations about Milchan’s extensive contacts with Netanyahu, and possible corruption, could potentially send the prime minister to jail, although many Israelis still regard Netanyahu as the only one with the experience and know-how to keep Israel safe and would hate to see him go.

Regarding Netanyahu’s tax scandal and Milchan’s involvement, Israeli attorney-general Avichai Mendelblit warned on Sunday of a possible ‘real erosion’ of the rule of law, meaning Netanyahu’s attempt to change the law in order to prevent indictment of a sitting prime minister, to protect himself. A draft indictment on Netanyahu says he received gifts and benefits from Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer, in return helping them with actions worth billions.

The South African link, which still hangs like an old cloud over Israel’s relations with South African liberation movements, and is exploited by Israel’s latter-day foes, still makes South African Jews uncomfortable. It’s about Israel’s controversial sale of military hardware to South Africa during apartheid. Although the background at the time was very complicated and so much water has passed under the bridge since then, it is right that Jews should still feel compromised by this relationship, particularly in the ‘new’ South Africa, and when Israel has shifted so significantly to the right that the old idealistic Israel of Ben Gurion’s day has faded.

What’s to learn from this? Can a country like Israel which is still surrounded by enemies choose freely who it associates with, regardless of its partner’s morality? Sadly, Israel, which is a phenomenal success story today, is developing under Netanyahu a cosy relationship with ethnic, far-right regimes hostile to foreigners, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, because Netanyahu believes Israel will benefit, and he shares some of his views. The Nation-State Bill passed last year which specifies Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, and which encountered major criticism internationally, points in this direction.

There are unfortunate echoes of Israel’s past relationship to South Africa in this association. We don’t know yet if Netanyahu will be indicted, but let’s hope Israel will not suffer because of his links with Hungary and similar authoritarian regimes.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za 


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