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Israel throws Hollywood bash

Movie producer Arnon Milchan and tennis star Serena Williams share a light moment at the Israel 60 in Los Angeles that took place Sept. 18, 2008. (AP)

Movie producer Arnon Milchan and tennis star Serena Williams share a light moment at the Israel 60 in Los Angeles that took place Sept. 18, 2008. (AP)

LOS ANGELES (JTA) – There were Hollywood stars and powerful studio heads, politicians and multinational rappers, Israeli Cabinet ministers and dancers, two dozen Israeli Scouts, a 3-D film segment, a tennis legend, comedians, resounding shofars, electronic fireworks and tables groaning with biblical fruits.

They all came out for the Sept. 18 festivities marking Israel’s 60th anniversary and honoring Israeli-born Arnon Milchan, the producer of some 120 movies, including “Pretty Woman,” “L.A. Confidential” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.”

The venue was the Paramount Studio – complete with red carpet, an array of TV news cameras, entertainment reporters thrusting microphones into the faces of the famous and not-so-famous, and lovely ladies wearing designer dresses and an occasional tattoo.

Among the A-listers in attendance: Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, Kiefer Sutherland, U.S. Open champion Serena Williams, Seal, Shaun Toub, studio chiefs Sumner Redstone and Terry Semel, music producer David Foster and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Each of the 740 guests had paid $1,000 to attend a gala saluting Israel and Milchan, an ex-Israeli soldier, soccer star, shadowy arms consultant, international business entrepreneur and big-time Hollywood producer.

Milchan does not lack confidence. His next ambition, he told JTA in an exclusive interview, is to make peace between Arabs and Jews and take care of the Iranian situation.

But first came this bit of gossip about the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

“Arafat told me that he had seem my movie ‘Pretty Woman’ at least 20 times,” Milchan said. “A bodyguard took me to Arafat’s bedroom, and there was a cassette of the movie.”

Milchan said he normally disdains glitzy Hollywood parties – “I don’t even go to my own premieres” – but deemed the event to be for a good cause, the Citizens’ Empowerment Center in Israel, or CECI. The center and the Consulate General of Israel served as hosts for the gala.

Izak Parvis Nazarian, who established CECI to promote democracy and voting rights among Israeli citizens and youth, took a back seat at the glittering evening, as did his daughter, Dora Kadisha, the chief organizer of the program.

Kadisha’s lovely daugher, Dina, kept things rolling as mistress of ceremonies.

Israel was well represented by rapper Subliminal and such dignitaries as Education Minister Yuli Tamir, Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik, former foreign minister Silvan Shalom and, via video, by Tzipi Livni, the Kadima Party leader and prime minister-designate.

Milchan provided his own surprise when after accepting the Legacy of Citizens Lifetime Achievement Award, he called Williams to the stage and shared the award with her.

Milchan used the moment to voice some serious thoughts on the Middle East situation.

“I am older than the State of Israel itself,” he began. “First we had our neighbors throwing stones, then the stones became rockets and then they became missiles. … Then we all got more toys and more people died.

“We are all hostages,” he said.

Later, he added, “Just imagine if we all helped each other. Maybe we can learn from Warren Beatty, who told me, ‘Keep asking them, maybe one of the girls will say yes.’ ”

In the early 1960s, Milchan was a star center forward for Maccabi Tel Aviv and the national soccer team. At age 20 he inherited a debt-laden fertilizer company from his father and turned it into one of Israel’s largest agro-chemical concerns.

Today, with worldwide business investments and profitable movies, he confirms Fortune magazine’s estimate of his worth at $3.1 billion.

After serving in the Israeli army during the 1967 Six-Day War and 1973 Yom Kippur War, and getting his feet wet in the Israeli and British movie industries, Milchan was ready to take on Hollywood. In 1991 he founded New Regency Productions and has bankrolled films by such big-name directors as Martin Scorcese and Sergio Leone.

Though Milchan remains closely involved in the affairs of his homeland, he takes no role in the Israeli film industry. Nor does he make Hollywood movies on Jewish or Israeli themes.

“I have a high regard for Israeli movies, but you’ve got to specialize,” he said. “You can’t make a ‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith,’ which opened in 3,000 American theaters, and then a Hebrew-language film with English subtitles that plays in a few art houses.”

Milchan does give money to Israeli causes, including $1 million to the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv, for which he also served as chairman. He spends much of the year in Israel, where he has houses in Herzliyah and Bet Yanai, near Caesarea, or in London.

He follows Israeli politics closely and is fond of dropping the names of his high-level friends, particularly Shimon Peres (“his first letter he wrote as president went to me”), but also Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

Milchan said he likes to operate behind the scenes and asserted that he helped then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon persuade Peres to join the new Kadima Party several yeas ago.

These days, Milchan said, “I’m trying to make peace among the left, right and center.”

Milchan put up $100 million for a pet project to establish a university in the Galilee, with a top faculty to attract Jewish, Muslim and Christian students. The project has been stalled for two years, which Milchan blames on “government changes, academic opposition and bureaucracy.”

If the university doesn’t take off, he said he plans to initiate a major hydraulic energy project.

“I really, really believe that I have the skills, the courage, the conviction and the know-how to make a difference in the peace process in the Middle East,” he said. “I think I can get in a room, no different than I got into a room with Arafat. I can get in the room and work out a deal … I can get with the Iranian guy.

“I think if I really want something, it is to work with the next administration in Israel and the United States, whoever is the president here, whoever is the prime minister in Israel, and get myself hired to be the go-between between Arabs and Jews.”

In the mid-1980s, Milchan’s name frequently popped up as an “arms merchant” in a criminal case involving the illegal shipment to Israel of 800 krytrons, small electronic devices that can be used for triggering nuclear weapons.

Milchan himself was never charged in the case, but he acknowledges that one of his companies served as a front in the transaction. Despite that mark on his reputation, Milchan expresses little doubt that he can bring a long-awaited peace to the Middle East.

“I will deliver this one,” he said. “The point I’m making here, I’m the most qualified person I’ve ever met to make peace. It will be my best movie, and I can do it. That’s my big dream.”

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