Hollywood-based billionaire Israeli film producer Arnon Milchan, who is at the center of corruption allegations now being investigated by police against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is a figure of considerable intrigue and mystery, with an extraordinary range of contacts and friends in film, Israeli politics and, apparently, the Israeli intelligence community.
The past few days have seen his name drawn deep into the Netanyahu case — as a major benefactor of the prime minister and his wife Sara. Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing.
Milchan, 72, has for years reportedly supplied Netanyahu with fine cigars — including Cohiba Sigla V, Trinidad and Montecristo — and given Sara bottles of $200-plus Dom Pérignon pink champagne. A Channel 2 TV report said Friday that the cigar supplies were “a veritable airlift” that has continued throughout the past 7-8 years of Netanyahu’s current prime ministerial stint, with a value totaling hundreds of thousands of shekels. Netanyahu’s lawyer said earlier Friday that there was nothing criminal in one good friend giving cigars to another.
The Channel 2 report stated that Milchan’s gifts to Netanyahu began when he was opposition leader, and were not limited to cigars. There were suits, and meals cooked by private chefs, it said, and jewelry for Mrs. Netanyahu.
It was not clear that Netanyahu had done anything in return for such presents, the TV report said. It was also unclear whether the sheer value of the gifts meant that accepting them constituted a breach of the law. Yaakov Weinroth, Netanyahu’s lawyer, said there was “not a trace of criminality” in the matter.
Milchan’s warm relations with Israeli politicians go far beyond Likud leader Netanyahu. He was very close to the late prime minister and president Shimon Peres, even naming his son Shimon, Channel 2 news reported. He was friendly with former prime minister Ehud Olmert, who is currently serving a jail term for corruption. He brokered a meeting before the last elections between Netanyahu and opposition leader and head of the Zionist Union party Isaac Herzog, on a possible unity government that never developed.
Sources close to Netanyahu have pointed out that Milchan sits on the board of Channel 10, which the prime minister has previously tried to shutter.
Milchan has also introduced Netanyahu to a range of leading Hollywood players.
Three years ago, in an Israeli TV documentary, Milchan offered a tantalizing glimpse of his work as an Israeli intelligence agent, describing his involvement in Israel’s alleged nuclear program when he was working in Hollywood during the 1970s and 1980s.
Milchan, who was behind such movie hits as “Fight Club,” “Pretty Woman,” “LA Confidential,” “12 Years a Slave” and “The Big Short,” gave an exclusive interview to Channel 2 investigative reporter Ilana Dayan.
In the November 2013 interview, Milchan spoke about his role in clandestine arms deals and efforts to buy technologies that Israel allegedly needed to make nuclear weapons.
“Do you know what it’s like to be a 20-something-year-old kid [and] his country lets him be James Bond? Wow! The action! That was exciting,” he told the program.
As word of his side-line activities in arms-dealing got around, there were some in the film industry who were reluctant to work with him, Milchan told Dayan.
“In Hollywood they don’t like working with an arms dealer, ideologically,” he said, “with someone who lives off selling machine-guns and killing. Instead of someone talking to me about a script, I had to spend half an hour explaining that I’m not an arms dealer.”
Peres, who was president at the time, said he recruited Milchan. “Arnon is a special man. It was I who recruited him … when I was at the Ministry of Defense. Arnon was involved in numerous defense-related procurement activities and intelligence operations,” said Peres.
Milchan also said he tried to get other Hollywood figures involved in his clandestine work, notably the late director Sydney Pollack. Pollack was allegedly involved in buying arms and military equipment for Israel during the 1970s and, according to Milchan, knew just what he was getting into.
“Pollack knew, but I didn’t want to scare him because he’s American… He could have said ‘no,” Milchan said. “He said ‘no’ many times, but he also said ‘yes’ many times.”
Milchan, who is part-owner of Israel’s Channel 10 television company, also admitted trying to use an unnamed big star to entice a US nuclear scientist to a private meeting in the actor’s house, although the interview didn’t clarify if the rendezvous ever took place.
A number of actors feature in the Channel 2 documentary, including Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck and Robert De Niro, who is a personal friend of Milchan’s.
De Niro told Dayan that he had heard things about Milchan; however nothing that was ever confirmed. “I wasn’t sure,” he said.
Two years ago, authors Meir Doron and Joseph Gelman published a book titled “Confidential: The Life of Secret Agent Turned Hollywood Tycoon Arnon Milchan,” in which they asserted that Milchan was acting for Israel’s now defunct Bureau of Scientific Relations, known as Lekem. The clandestine bureau focused on obtaining information for secret defense programs that reputedly included Israel’s rumored nuclear weapons research and development program. The bureau was disbanded in 1987 after US Navy specialist Jonathan Pollard was caught spying for Israel.
On Friday night, Channel 2 news claimed Milchan also had a hand in ensuring the delivery of American Patriot missile defense systems to Israel at the time of the Gulf War.
You get Israel news... but do you GET it? Here's your chance to understand not only the big picture that we cover on these pages, but also the critical, juicy details of life in Israel.
In Streetwise Hebrew for the Times of Israel Community, each month we'll learn several colloquial Hebrew phrases around a common theme. These are bite-size audio Hebrew classes that we think you'll really enjoy.
We’re really pleased that you’ve read X Times of Israel articles in the past month.
That’s why we come to work every day - to provide discerning readers like you with must-read coverage of Israel and the Jewish world.
So now we have a request. Unlike other news outlets, we haven’t put up a paywall. But as the journalism we do is costly, we invite readers for whom The Times of Israel has become important to help support our work by joining The Times of Israel Community.
For as little as $6 a month you can help support our quality journalism while enjoying The Times of Israel AD-FREE, as well as accessing exclusive content available only to Times of Israel Community members.