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ToI investigates

Questions on arms sales, funding bring 2nd Israeli astronaut back down to earth

Before he was being feted as a national hero for paying his way into orbit on a private trip, pilot Eytan Stibbe was making a fortune in a war-torn corner of Africa

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

Eytan Stibbe and Israeli president Reuven Rivlin bump elbows at a ceremony celebrating Stibbe's planned trip to the International Space Station, November 16, 2020 (Mark Neyman/GPO)
Eytan Stibbe and Israeli president Reuven Rivlin bump elbows at a ceremony celebrating Stibbe's planned trip to the International Space Station, November 16, 2020 (Mark Neyman/GPO)

In November, a curious press conference took place in the stately ceremony hall of the President’s Residence. Within hours, journalists and other observers would accuse its participants of misleading the public into embracing a new national hero whom some believed was unworthy of the distinction.

On the morning of November 16, standing next to an Israeli flag and not far from a stained glass window depicting the prophet Elijah ascending to heaven, Ran Livne, the general director of The Ramon Foundation, announced that Israel was sending a second person into space [Hebrew link].

“This mission will be entirely dedicated to advancing Israeli innovation and to the children of Israel,” Livne said.

Livne said that Eytan Stibbe, a 62-year-old former fighter pilot, would visit the International Space Station in late 2021, where he would conduct scientific experiments.

“For the first time in history, Israeli children will be able to speak to an astronaut, in Hebrew, who is in the space station. For children, this will be the realization of a dream and from our point of view,  it is part of our mission to narrow societal gaps, empower youth and make science approachable to all ages.”

The Ramon Foundation, a non-profit that promotes space education and leadership development, is named after Israel’s first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, who was aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003 when it broke apart upon re-entry, killing all seven crew members.

The fact that the Ramon Foundation had chosen Stibbe naturally invited comparisons to Ilan Ramon, who has assumed the status of a national hero.

Tal Ramon, one of Ilan Ramon’s children, participated in the November 16 ceremony, as did Science and Technology Minister Izhar Shay (Blue and White).

Tal Ramon, son of the late Ilan and Rona Ramon, at a November 16, 2020 press conference announcing the launch of Israel’s “second astronaut” into space (Photo:GPO/Mark Neyman)

When President Reuven Rivlin took the podium, he spoke about Stibbe’s future space journey in even more grandiose terms.

“This is a day of national joy and great pride. It is not every day that we announce an Israeli astronaut going into space.” said Rivlin.

“Eytan Stibbe,” he continued, “an Israeli pilot who wears the blue-and-white flag on his shoulder, will prove once again, as we have been proving for 72 years, that even the sky is not the limit.”

The Ramon Foundation had told Israeli media outlets about the ceremony at the President’s Residence ahead of time, on condition that they did not report on it until the event started.  The Office of the President, whose duties are largely ceremonial, is said to be the second-most trusted institution in Israel, after the Israel Defense Forces. Because Rivlin’s office was involved, many Israeli media outlets — including The Times of Israel — initially accepted the announcement at face value. “Israel to send its second-ever astronaut into space,” the Times of Israel’s headline reported.

In Hebrew, the announcement got wall-to-wall coverage, most of it laudatory. But within hours, journalists and Israelis who are active on Twitter began to suspect they were not being told the whole story.

“Thanks, Twitter, you made me Google Eytan Stibbe and now I am wondering how Israel got involved in the civil war in Angola on the side of the Communists (??)” tweeted Ben Gurion University postdoctoral student Eyal Bar Haim.

Eytan Stibbe, set to become Israel’s “second astronaut in space,” speaks at the president’s residence on November 16, 2020 (Mark Neyman / GPO)

Indeed, the Hebrew version of Wikipedia announced that “Eytan Stibbe” had been the second-most viewed entry for November 16, with 20.4 thousand views. There, readers would have learned that Stibbe had been one of the founders, in 1985, of the mysterious Israeli company LR Group, and had earned money selling military equipment to unspecified “developing countries.”

Then there was the funding. A few hours after the press conference, Haaretz published an article revealing that Stibbe was in fact paying his own way into orbit.

He will pay the Ramon Foundation for the cost of the trip — advertised at $55 million — and the foundation will pass the money on to the private US-based company Axiom Space so that he can be a passenger on the for-profit company’s maiden voyage to the International Space Station. Stibbe told The Times of Israel that he does not plan to request a tax break for the donation and that the price he is paying is the same as if he had traveled as a private individual.

In 2019, Stibbe donated NIS 234,000 ($70,000) to the Ramon Foundation, according to Israel’s charity registry, making him one of the non-profit’s largest donors. Thus, unlike Ilan Ramon, who was chosen by the Israeli Space Agency in a presumably meritocratic process to join a NASA-led space mission, it turned out that Stibbe had been nominated for a private space flight by a private foundation of which he is a major donor.

Criticism was quick to follow.

“Ilan Ramon: Years of training, study and true dedication to a scientific mission that also carries a price. Eytan Stibbe: Dollars,” wrote data analyst and popular Twitter pundit Nehemia Gershuni-Aylho.

Ramon Foundation director Ran Livne acknowledged that Stibbe’s money played a role in his being chosen for the mission, but told The Times of Israel that there is nothing untoward about this.

“There is no question that Eytan Stibbe is a rich man who bought a ticket to space. That’s the reality. We’re not hiding it. But if you ask who pressured who to go to space, then we pressured him. We asked him to do it.”

Other critics mentioned reports that Stibbe had earned money as an arms dealer in Africa.

“I wonder whether the president who held a festive press conference today during which he announced the Israeli astronaut Eytan Stibbe is aware of the source of money that allowed Stibbe to fund his expensive trip to space,” tweeted journalist Talli Sonnenfeld.

Arms and farms in Angola

By all accounts, Eytan Stibbe was a remarkable fighter pilot. He entered the air force in 1976 where he flew Skyhawk, Phantom and F-16 jets. During the First Lebanon War, he distinguished himself [Hebrew link] as the only F-16 pilot in the history of the Israeli air force who shot down four enemy planes in a single sortie. His commander was Ilan Ramon.

In 1985, Stibbe and fellow former fighter pilots Ami Lustig and Roy Ben Yami founded LR Avionics Technologies Ltd, the company that would later be called LR Group.

The firm reportedly made its money through sales of military equipment from former Warsaw Pact countries to countries in Africa, as well as through infrastructure and agricultural projects. Media reports from different countries over the years suggest that military sales were a significant aspect of the company’s activity. Stibbe, however, is adamant that military sales constituted less than one percent of LR Group’s revenues, his spokesperson said.

Selling weapons is not problematic on its own. The United Nations Arms Trade Treaty (signed by Israel in 2014) recognizes the “legitimate political, security, economic and commercial interests of States in the international trade in conventional arms.” But when there is reason to believe the weapons in question could be used in crimes against humanity, attacks against civilians or the activities of transnational organized crime, then such sales are in contravention of the treaty, as well as widely regarded as morally repugnant.

The arms treaty was signed by Israel in 2014, but according to an Amnesty International Israel report [Hebrew link] in 2019, was never ratified by the cabinet. While arms sales are closely monitored by the Defense Ministry’s export control body, there are no specific prohibitions in Israeli law against exporting weapons for the reasons listed in the treaty.

The spokesperson for Stibbe told The Times of Israel that Stibbe was not personally involved in LR Group’s business deals related to military equipment. The spokesperson said Stibbe is nonetheless positive that “no means that LR transferred were used against civilians or for violations of human rights.”

But a series of media clips over the years suggest that LR Group’s involvement in weapons sales may have been significant.

In October 1997, the Romanian newspaper Evenimentul Zilei reported that  Bucharest had sold 40 tons of AKM assault rifles to Rwanda, using LR Avionics Technologies Ltd. (LR Group’s previous name) as an intermediary. The newspaper reportedly published customs documents showing that the rifles were sent via Yemen.

Stibbe’s spokesperson told The Times of Israel that Stibbe is “not familiar with this matter or with this report from 23 years ago.”

In 2019, Haaretz’s Gur Megiddo detailed LR Group’s arms sales to the government of Angola, going back to the country’s 27-year civil war.

“LR got involved in defense exports in Angola in the mid-80s and spent years massively arming the government there and training its troops. According to a variety of reports, the company sold Sukhoi 27 combat planes, artillery shells, and light weapons to the government. At the same time, the three founders also built airports and security systems and were involved in purchasing a plane for Jose Eduardo dos Santos, the president who ruled in Angola for 38 years through 2017,” Megiddo wrote.

Angola’s bloody and brutal civil war began just after Angola gained its independence from Portugal in 1975, with most of the fighting between the Communist MPLA, backed by the Soviets, and the anti-Communist UNITA, backed by the US. In 1992, MPLA leader José Eduardo dos Santos won the country’s first free national election, but UNITA refused to accept the results and continued fighting, leading Dos Santos to scrap a pact banning arms acquisitions in place since 1991 and seek weapons deals from foreign suppliers.

Dos Santos procured billions of dollars worth of arms, much of it on credit in exchange for oil and other natural resources, while UNITA also continued to procure weapons, usually in exchange for diamonds, despite a 1993 UN arms embargo on the guerillas. The war would go on until 2002.

Stibbe has acknowledged selling military equipment to Angola, most notably in a 2012 Israeli Channel 12 feature about him entitled “The pilot who became king of Angola.” [Hebrew link]

“We helped Angola end the war,” he said. “By bringing them interceptor aircraft, two Sukhoi 27 fighter planes, from Uzbekistan, and their presence in the country stopped the flights that were supplying weapons, food and ammunition [to UNITA] and the export of illegal diamonds from Angola. After one, or one and a half years, the war ended.”

But Stibbe’s spokesperson said he objects to Haaretz’s portrayal of LR Group as an arms dealer.

“There is no basis to the allegations that present LR as an arms dealer and LR has never been accused of any illegal or unlawful activity in this regard. LR’s activity in Angola was largely in the fields of agricultural infrastructure, water and communications,” the spokesperson said.

On November 20, Haaretz revealed that it had received a warning letter over the summer from a British law firm representing Stibbe. The eight-page letter accused the daily of having defamed its client in five separate articles written between 2002 and 2020. The law firm reportedly demanded that any mention of Stibbe being involved in weapons sales to Angola during his time at LR Group be removed from the articles, warning that Stibbe might consider suing the paper in the UK, a country known for its strict libel laws, if its demands were not met. Haaretz did not ultimately accede to the request, it said.

Stibbe’s spokesperson told The Times of Israel that while LR Group did engage in sales “related to defense issues,” Stibbe personally was not involved in this side of the business. The spokesperson further told The Times of Israel that to the best of Stibbe’s knowledge, “revenues from deals related to defense issues were less than one percent of LR’s revenues.”

According to Stibbe’s spokesperson, LR Group only engaged in military sales toward the end of Angola’s civil war and even then had all the proper authorizations.

“Towards the end of the 20-year civil war in Angola, when European countries, the United States and Israel supported the Angolan government, LR was requested by the Angolan government to help improve the airspace safety in the country to the international standards of ICAO (the UN International Civil Aviation Organization),” the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson said that the weapons LR Group sold to Angola were defensive in nature and in fact were never put into use.

“After consultations with the Israeli government, LR assisted the Angolan government in purchasing two interceptors, radars and rescue helicopters. Not only was this a perfectly legal deal, the aircraft and air control radars were never used to intercept any aircraft and were used solely for deterrence. The funding for the improvement of Angola capital’s international airport and the control systems in Angola’s airspace was obtained through IATA – the International Aviation Organization, and was done under its supervision,” the spokesperson said.

But there are indications that weapons deals continued after the civil war ended, and not only in Angola.

According to a 2016 British court filing, LR Avionics Technologies Ltd. entered into a contract in October 2002 to supply military equipment to the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

Stibbe told The Times of Israel he was not familiar with such a deal.

Meanwhile, a leaked US embassy communique from 2007 published by Wikileaks revealed that in 2004, Israeli weapons firm Elbit purchased “58 computer housing castings for use in connection with artillery systems sold for end use by the Angolan Army.”

Most of these castings, according to the leak, “were delivered to Angolan Army through Elbit’s prime contractor, LR Avionics Technologies Ltd.”

Stibbe told The Times of Israel that he was not familiar with this deal either but if it did occur there is no question in his mind it would have been authorized by Israel’s Defense Ministry.

“On the face of it,” he said, “it is clear that transactions made together with well-known and reputable entities such as Elbit Systems, like all the other transactions involving LR, have received all the required approvals.”

In addition to selling weapons, LR Group has been active in the agriculture, social housing, border surveillance and communications industries in Angola and other African countries, according to Africa Intelligence.

Agriculture and accords

In 2011, Stibbe reportedly sold his shares in the LR Group. A source told The Times of Israel he cashed out to the tune of several hundreds of millions of dollars. He is estimated to have a net worth of several hundred million dollars.

In 2012 he set up Vital Capital, which has invested in electricity infrastructure, a hospital and agribusiness in Angola. In 2012 he also bought a 35 percent stake in the Mitrelli Group, a company that works in agriculture, fisheries, water, energy, education and health in Angola, Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal and other “developing countries,” according to its website.

Stibbe has also been linked to normalization efforts with Gulf Arab states, though he denies any connection to such efforts.

In July, Haaretz reported that it was Stibbe’s private jet, M-ANGO, that took Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a secret trip to Oman in October 2018. The trip was seen as a dramatic sign of warming ties between Israel and Gulf countries.

Haaretz’s English edition editor Avi Scharf has further reported that Stibbe’s private plane was spotted in Bahrain on September 30 and again in Bahrain the following week, at the same time Mossad chief Yossi Cohen was there. It was also spotted in Abu Dhabi in early October.

When asked about these flights, Stibbe’s spokesperson told the Times of Israel that while the plane is indeed his private plane, “it is handled by a management company that may lease the plane to other parties. When the plane is leased to third parties, Eytan does not know where it flies to. Eytan had no involvement in any of these trips.”

Stibbe may also have been linked to Israel’s normalization accord with Sudan, which began in earnest with a trip Netanyahu took to Uganda on February 3, 2020, during which the prime minister held a semi-secret meeting with Sudanese leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan.

PM Netanyahu meets with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni at the State House in Entebbe, Uganda, February 3, 2020 (Haim Tzach/GPO)

According to Africa Intelligence, an evangelical group called Uganda Christian Coalition for Israel played a prominent role in Netanyahu’s one-day trip to Entebbe. The group is closely linked to Yoweri Museveni’s daughter Patience Rwaboogo, according to the report, which claimed that she is also a partner in Stibbe’s Vital Capital Fund.

When asked about his relationship with Rwaboogo, a spokesperson for Stibbe said that “Patience Rwaboogo is not a partner nor an investor in the Vital Fund. The information about the fund’s investors is not public and Eytan Stibbe is not at liberty to disclose it.”

The fund is registered in the British Virgin Islands and the names of its partners are not public.

That same month, Stibbe signed an open letter by 540 former pilots calling on Rivlin not to give Netanyahu the mandate to form a government due to his indictment on corruption charges.

The people’s space tourist

Nine months later, Stibbe would step forward proudly at Rivlin’s official residence, ascend the podium and solemnly declare, “Mr. President, I accept your mission upon myself.”

Given the backlash and reports revisiting LR Group’s dealings, it is unclear why Stibbe chose such a public announcement, with a press conference emblazoned with the state’s imprimatur for what amounts to a private visit to space.

A source who knows Stibbe speculated to The Times of Israel that perhaps as he gets older, he is thinking about his legacy.

The Times of Israel raised another possibility, asking Stibbe whether he had any intention of going into politics. His spokesperson flatly denied any such aspirations.

“Eytan Stibbe has no intention of entering politics” and his sole ambition is “to go to the International Space Station and devote his time to conducting a series of unprecedented experiments that are intended to advance Israeli technologies and scientific developments and to make space exploration and science accessible to children and youth in Israel,” the spokesperson said.

Livne, the Ramon Foundation director, denied any intention to mislead the public or the idea that he misrepresented Stibbe’s role as a paying space tourist.

“Go back and watch the press conference and pay attention. I said that today we are announcing the second Israeli in space. After me the president and minister of science and technology described the facts wrong,” he said.

In fact, Livne described Stibbe as an “astronaut” whom the government and state of Israel were “sending” into space.

Whether or not someone paying to fly to space in a non-purely professional or scientific capacity is an astronaut remains a matter for debate, though many associate the word with those chosen to fly on government-funded or sponsored space missions.

Israel’s first astronaut, Ilan Ramon. (NASA)

“When I say astronaut, you think of Ilan Ramon or Neil Armstrong,” Livne said, “people chosen by a country to fly to space. But this paradigm is changing. In the last decade the space industry has undergone privatization and commercialization.”

Livne said that if the media felt misled, it was probably due to the fact that Israelis are a warm, patriotic people who don’t always make a distinction between private achievements and those of the nation as a whole.

“We are Israeli,” he explained. “I keep hearing that the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team is the nation’s team. To Americans that seems strange. Are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers the national team?”

“We’re a small country. We embrace private successes [as our own]. I love this. I am a proud Israeli,” he added.

Livne argued that this warm Israeli attitude should also embrace a wealthy man who made his fortune in Africa, owns companies in the British Virgin Islands, and will pay his way into space.

“When I sat with the people from Axiom Space for the first time I said, listen what you guys don’t understand is this is going to become a national celebration,” Livne said.

“Eytan is not going to space to take a selfie,” he said. “It’s for science and education.”

———————–

***

In full: ToI’s questions to Eytan Stibbe’s spokesperson, and the responses:

In October 1997, the Romanian newspaper Evenimentul Zilei reported that Bucharest had sold 40 tons of AKM assault rifles to Rwanda, using LR Avionics Technologies Ltd. as an intermediary. The newspaper reportedly published customs documents showing that the rifles were sent via Yemen. We wanted to ask you to comment.

Eytan Stibbe is not familiar with this matter or with this report from 23 years ago.

Ha’aretz has reported that LR Group had, beginning in the mid-1990’s, sold weapons to the government of Angola, that in addition to planes it also sold artillery and light arms. Is this accurate?

There is no basis to the allegations that presents LR as an arms dealer and LR has never been accused of any illegal or unlawful activity in this regard. LR’s activity in Angola was largely in the fields of agricultural infrastructure, water and communications. Towards the end of the 20-year civil war in Angola, when European countries, the United States and Israel supported the Angolan government, LR was requested by the Angolan government to help improve the airspace safety in the country to the international standards of ICAO (the UN International Civil Aviation Organization).

After consultations with the Israeli government, LR assisted the Angolan government in purchasing two interceptors, radars and rescue helicopters. Not only was this a perfectly legal deal, the aircraft and air control radars were never used to intercept any aircraft and were used solely for deterrence. The funding for the improvement of Angola capital’s international airport and the control systems in Angola’s airspace was obtained through IATA – the International Aviation Organization, and was done under its supervision.

The plane of Angola’s President has been refurbished and maintained by the “Bedek” division of the Israeli Aerospace Industries. These were a few deals out of hundreds of projects that LR has carried out over the years that have all dealt with infrastructure development.

According to a 2016 British court filing, LR Avionics had entered into a contract in October 2002 to supply military equipment to the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Is this correct?

Eytan Stibbe is not familiar with such a deal. Eytan left the LR group in 2012 and cannot comment on publications concerning it from 2016. This has no relevance to Eytan and there is no justification for associating him with this project.

A leaked US Embassy communique from 2007 published by the Wikileaks website reveals that in 2004, Israeli weapons firm Elbit purchased “58 computer housing castings for use in connection with artillery systems sold for end use by the Angolan Army.” Most of these castings, according to the leak, “were delivered to Angolan Army through Elbit’s prime contractor, LR Avionics Technologies Ltd.” Is this accurate?

Eytan Stibbe is not familiar with such a deal. On the face of it, it is clear that transactions made together with well-known and reputable entities such as Elbit Systems, like all the other transactions involving LR, have received all the required approvals.

How will you use the fame that may be generated by your space trip? Do you have any intention of becoming a politician or serving in a senior role in the Israeli government?

Eytan Stibbe has no intention of entering politics.
His sole ambition is to go to the International Space Station and devote his time to conducting a series of unprecedented experiments that are intended to advance Israeli technologies and scientific developments and to make space exploration and science accessible to children and youth in Israel.

Ha’aretz reported that your private jet, M-ANGO took Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a secret trip to Oman in October 2018. Ha’aretz editor Avi Scharf has further reported that your private plane was spotted in Bahrain on September 30 and again in Bahrain the following week. It was also spotted in Abu Dhabi in early October. We wanted to ask you to comment on why your private plane flew to those countries at such a sensitive time. Are you involved in political matters behind the scenes?

Eytan Stibbe is not involved in political issues “behind the scenes”. Eytan’s plane, like most private planes, is handled by a management company that may lease the plane to other parties. When the plane is leased to third parties, Eytan does not know where it flies to. Eytan had no involvement in any of these trips.

Vital Capital Fund is registered in the British Virgin Islands. You say that Africa Intelligence’s report that Patience Rwaboogo is a partner is not correct. Can you tell us who your partners are and do you have corporate documents that name the general and limited partners in the fund?

Patience Rwaboogo is not a partner nor an investor in the Vital Fund. The information about the fund’s investors is not public and Eytan Stibbe is not at liberty to disclose it.

You also say that arms sales were a tiny percentage of the overall work you have done. What percentage of your income from LR Group came from weapons or military sales? You also said that all weapons sales you were involved in were moral and above board and that no weapons you sold were ever used against civilians or to commit human rights violations. Is that accurate?

As Eytan Stibbe left LR Group in 2012, he cannot relate to the details of LR’s business. To the best of Eytan’s knowledge, revenues from deals related to defense issues were less than 1% of LR’s revenues. Eytan was not involved in transactions in this area but has no doubt that no means that LR transferred were used against civilians or for violations of human rights. It would be false and grossly defamatory of Eytan to allege or imply that he was involved in the sale of equipment used against civilians or to commit acts that constitute a violation of human rights.

We also wanted to ask which entity is giving the money covering the flight costs to the Ramon,Foundation and will this be a donation that is recognized for tax purposes? If so, is Stibbe buying his ticket for a lower price that you would have as a private person?

The entity that transferred the money to the Ramon Foundation is a corporation controlled by Eytan Stibbe. No tax refund was requested and there is no intention to request such a refund, and therefore to the best of Eytan’s knowledge, the price is the same price as if he had traveled as a private individual.

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