Will your book on Arnon Milchan hurt Israeli security?
An interview with author Meir Doron.
Meir Doron and his brother-in-law Joseph Gelman wrote a new biography of the businessman and Hollywood tycoon Arnon Milchan. "Confidential: The Life of Secret Agent Turned Hollywood Tycoon - Arnon Milchan" (Gefen Books ) contains numerous disclosures about Milchan's involvement in Israel's nuclear program. Gelman is an American businessman who has served in the Israel Defense Forces. Doron is an Israeli-born journalist and author who has worked for the Israel Defense Forces magazine Bemahane Nahal as well as Haolam Hazeh and other publications. He has lived and worked in the United States since the 1980s.
Meir Doron, do you think your book on Arnon Milchan will hurt Israeli security interests?
"In our opinion the disclosures in the book will only strengthen Israel's deterrent power in the Middle East."
Why did you decide to write a book about Milchan?
"I was looking for a story with the potential to be a bestseller. Information published over the years about Milchan, such as "Discreet," an article about Benjamin Blumberg (Haaretz Magazine, April 23, 2005 ) intrigued me, and I began investigating Milchan's life story.
"I myself was born in Rehovot and lived near members of Milchan's extended family. Both my grandfather and his grandfather were among the founders of Rehovot.
"We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. It was an engrossing journey during which we slowly unfolded - here an interview, there a document there, here a file from a court - an amazing and untold story that includes espionage, Israel's atomic program, advanced security technologies, billions of dollars, ideology, patriotism and an astonishing Hollywood career.
"Several months into the investigation, Joe and I realized we had entered a minefield riddled with secrets. The investigation into Milchan's life took us all over the world. To apartheid South Africa and an atomic experiment carried out there by Israel near the South Pole. To Iran in the era of the Shah and an almost fantastical project in collaboration with the CIA that Milchan was involved in. We found Milchan's 'fingerprints' in California, where a company called Milco had been set up and that obtained technologies, materials and equipment for the Dimona nuclear reactor and for the Jericho missiles. We were amazed to discover that the company had recruited some of the best nuclear experts in the United States, who in effect worked for Israel."
Why did Milchan agree to cooperate with you?
"It was only after completing the book that Joe and I approached Milchan and asked him to respond. He was very surprised, but he also saw it as a compliment. Despite being suspicious and wary at first he agreed to a few friendly meetings, during which we interviewed him and were able to confirm some of the claims that appear in the book and to correct a number of factual errors. There were certain claims that he did not confirm but also did not deny. We had a few beers together. He invited us into his home and agreed to the interviews, but it can't be said that this is an authorized or official biography. As we wrote in the prologue to the book - and this was one of the first things that Milchan said to us: 'I would rather nobody write a book about me' - and certainly not about the matters we focused on in our book."
What do you think motivated him to work for Israeli intelligence?
"We believe Milchan acted out of patriotism. But he also saw great profits, from transactions that were not carried out for the Israeli government, including in Iran, South Africa and Taiwan, deals that he might not otherwise have obtained. His companies made millions from them."
Why did President Shimon Peres agree to talk with you and to confirm secrets?
"Our impression was that Peres sees himself as a father figure for Milchan. Arnon lost his father when he was 21, and not long after that he met Peres for the first time. Milchan named his youngest son Shimon, after Peres.
"The president confirmed that he was the one who recruited Milchan and in general terms confirmed the story we had written. He was very open and spoke in the most unambiguous fashion about Israel's atomic program. And, by the way, he believes Milchan should be a candidate for the Israel Prize for his work.
"When we went to President Peres, he already knew we had proof of Milchan's activities on behalf of the state. We also had material documenting the operational methods of Lakam [the so-called Science Liaison Bureau that operates as a secret unit within the Defense Ministry.] Lakam was established by Peres himself, when he was David Ben-Gurion's right-hand man and Defense Ministry director general, to supply the needs of Israel's nuclear program. It seems to me that Peres thought that if we were going to 'out' Milchan and Lakam in any event, it would be best if we got the facts straight."
What do you see as being the most important disclosure in the book?
"The hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars paid in commissions for defense deals between Israel and the United States. They were deposited in secret bank accounts all over the world and used to fund Israeli espionage activities abroad. The money in these accounts paid for operations that helped Israel to obtain materials, technologies and equipment that turned it into a nuclear power, with the fifth biggest nuclear arsenal in the world.
"Prime ministers and defense ministers and finance ministers came and went, but there was only 'treasurer' of Israel's secret espionage budget - Arnon Milchan. He collected commission fees from American security firms that were deposited in the bank accounts of various companies he set up in several countries where Israeli spy agencies operate."
What is the purpose of the book?
"The book has no agenda other than to tell a true, intriguing, unknown story. Joe and I are both IDF veterans, we fought in Israel's wars and we consider ourselves Israeli patriots, and our political positions are in the center. We didn't hack into the Mossad's computers, we didn't break into the basements of the reactor and we didn't violate any nondisclosure agreements.
"It is true that the book documents about Israel's nuclear program but we focus on the period between the 1950s and the end of the '80s. Most of the spy stories have passed the statute of limitations, and operational methods have certainly changed since then. It is true that for the first time there is an almost full acknowledgment from Shimon Peres, the father of the Israeli atom bomb, about the country's nuclear prowess, but that is no longer a secret to anyone."
Do you think the censor would have let you publish this kind of book in Israel?
"Probably not. Already at the start of our work on the book it was made clear to us that unless it was published abroad first the censor would raise obstacles to its publication in Israel. From the outset we aimed for the international market."