Israeli tycoon Arnon Milchan is the billionaire Hollywood producer behind Pretty Woman. He was also a secret agent who helped Israel and South Africa broker deals trading nuclear material for propaganda assistance. An excerpt from the forthcoming Confidential.
Western countries knowingly used third-country middlemen from around the world to trade with the lucrative South African market while publicly maintaining a posture of vocal opposition to apartheid. Virtually every diamond purchased in the Western world was mined in South Africa at the time and helped to comfortably finance the South African military machine. Oil from Arab countries flowed freely without regard for any embargo.
Israel feared the political and mostly symbolic implications of the embargo and found it advantageous to secretly undermine it. If the West could be pushed into endorsing an embargo against South Africa, no matter how ineffective, the thinking went, it might also be pushed into one against Israel. Therefore Israel would not adhere to it as a matter of policy, although publicly it would pay it full lip service.
Every imaginable weapons system needed by South Africa that could not be purchased directly from Israel was purchased on the international market, and instead of ending up in Israel as indicated on the final destination documentation, was diverted to South Africa. As with Israeli procurements, Milchan’s company quickly became the largest defense procurer for the South African government. But unlike his procurements for Israel, his commissions on his South African deals were pocketed by him and quickly became the largest source of his wealth—which would ultimately be parlayed into Hollywood blockbusters.
But as important and lucrative as defense systems were for Milchan personally, uranium was Israel’s primary obsession in its relations with South Africa. The initial feedstock for Israel’s reactor at Dimona had come from France; later supplies came from a series of covert LAKAM Isreali intelligence operations. Blumberg facilitated the purchase of the first 50-ton shipment of uranium oxide from South Africa, but the Israelis were looking for something even more serious than that.
They were looking for a nuclear testing ground. Israel was confident in the reliability of its first generation of nuclear weapons, which were French-tested. But following the Yom Kippur War, Israel had developed the neutron bomb involving much more sophisticated technology. That would require at least one confirming test.
In exchange for the transfer of sensitive nuclear technology, South Africa would finally agree to allow Israeli access to the wide-open space of the Kalahari Desert or the South Atlantic for the purpose of a nuclear test. The nuclear transfer came in the form of tritium. Van den Bergh was eager to procure 30 grams of tritium from Israel, enough for 12 atomic bombs. Tritium is used to increase the power of nuclear weapons by creating fusion for thermonuclear bombs.
In an operation codenamed “Teeblare,” “Tea Leaves” in Afrikaans, Israel delivered 12 shipments of tritium manufactured in Dimona to South Africa in tiny capsules, which contained 2.5 grams each. Benjamin Blumberg, Rhoodie, Milchan, and others served as escorts on the special C-130 Hercules flights carrying the capsules. These deals secured both the testing site and, over time, an additional 500 tons of uranium for Israel.
By August 1977 Israel was ready for an underground test at the new Kalahari Desert test site, but a few days earlier, on July 30, a Soviet reconnaissance satellite noticed the test preparations for what they assumed was a South African bomb. The Soviets forwarded their concern to Washington. Seven days later, a U.S. satellite confirmed the Soviet finding. Immediate protests were issued to South Africa by the U.S., British, French, and West German governments, and the test was abruptly scrapped at the last minute. It was a setback.
Sept. 22, 1979, was just another evening. There was, however, a terrible storm circulating in the extremely remote southwest region of the Indian Ocean—nothing unusual for that time of year. Thousands of miles away, the world’s largest radio telescope at Arecibo in Puerto Rico suddenly detected an anomaly, an electromagnetic ripple on the lower surface of the ionosphere emanating from the lower Atlantic/Indian Ocean region.
At the same time, an American Vela satellite detected a distinctive double flash. A few commercial fishermen in the area reported a large flash in the distance coming from the direction of Prince Edward Islands, located about 1,500 miles southeast of Plenttenberg Bay. Infrared sensor data indicated what looked like a nuclear explosion, probably an enhanced-radiation neutron bomb. The device was likely exploded on a barge, located near a ship-borne command post. It was probably detonated inside a steel container like a commercial vault.
The minds behind the operation had cleverly waited for the onset of a major South Indian Ocean storm before proceeding with the detonation. This would quickly wash radioactive evidence into the turbulent open sea. By the time snooping U.S. planes arrived on the scene to conduct atmospheric tests, the storm had already cleansed the evidence, and it would take days before a properly equipped ship would arrive on the scene with little if anything to find.
The sea was rough and the command ship maintained radio silence. It was packed with sophisticated electronics and sensors and was pitching violently. On board were numerous Israeli and South African scientists and technicians and the key facilitators of the secret nuclear relationship. They witnessed the flash with a little trepidation, but mostly with a sense of excitement.
Israel got its test. It was a substantial coup and one of the most secret operations ever conducted by Israel and the LAKAM, the details of which only began to emerge publicly years later, after the fall of the apartheid government of South Africa in 1995. It was a small 2 to 3 kiloton neutron bomb, which demonstrated a high level of sophistication.
United States security experts desperately scrambled to decipher the data, an effort that started immediately and lasted for months. Arguments over the interpretation of the data continued for years; most scientists and nuclear experts concluded with certainty that it was a nuclear explosion. President Jimmy Carter was in a difficult bind. By U.S. law, if the United States publicly confirmed that Israel was linked to a nuclear test, the president and Congress would be forced to act by the amended U.S. Foreign Assistance Act of 1961.
The law clearly states that countries acquiring or transferring nuclear weapons, material or technology outside of international nonproliferation regimes (such as the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, to which Israel is not a signatory) would be prohibited from receiving any military or economic aid from the United States. That is the reason the United States has never publicly acknowledged Israel’s nuclear arsenal, and that is the reason that the 1979 test has remained shrouded in mystery and buried.
Arnon Milchan continued working on projects for the Club of Ten. “I acted at the request of my own country,” Milchan told us. But over time he experienced a gradual awakening to the realities of apartheid, which occurred on routine visits, when he was no longer accompanied by government minders. It was during those trips, when he took the opportunity to rent a jeep and explore well beyond the isolated areas of white privilege, that his eyes were opened. As he recounted in an interview with us in 2009:
I found myself face to face with the most extreme poverty that I had ever seen; I visited townships and little villages. The inequity that I witnessed was a life-changing experience. I was free to go wherever I wanted, and I realized that was not the case with the people I met along the way. It was a growing burden on my conscience. But there was one incident that broke the camel’s back. One day I visited a local zoo. At the entrance, I noticed a sign that stated “No Blacks or Asians Allowed.” It wasn’t the first sign like that that I had seen, but it suddenly occurred to me that I am an “Asian” and I took it personally in a way that I had not before that. I knew that it was more of a racial statement than one of geography, but I simply could not bring myself to enter.
I couldn’t help but think of the racism that my own immediate family had escaped from, or all of those who stayed behind in Europe and were murdered because of this type of prejudice.
That same night, he couldn’t sleep.
In the morning, he packed his bags and headed for the airport. He had made a personal decision to never step foot in that country again until apartheid was abolished, and that he’d do everything in his power to undermine it.
Joseph Gelman, a former consultant to a past president and chairman of AIPAC, lives in Las Vegas. Meir Doron is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor. This excerpt is adapted from Confidential: The Life of Secret Agent Turned Hollywood Tycoon Arnon Milchan by Meir Doron and Joseph Gelman to be published July 30 by Gefen Books. (E-book out now at 21st Street Books.) Copyright 2011 by Joseph Gelman and Meir Doron. Reprinted by permission.
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