National Hero? Former Israeli Fighter Pilot Pulls $55 Million, Intergalactic PR Stunt

Billionaire Eytan Stibbe has tried to erase his arms trades of the past by buying a spot as the second Israeli in space. The question is why the Israeli media plays along

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Eytan Stibbe at the International Space Station this month.
Eytan Stibbe at the International Space Station this month.Credit: Screenshot from SpaceX's YouTube channel
Gur Megiddo
Gur Megiddo
Gur Megiddo
Gur Megiddo

A little over two weeks before Eytan Stibbe, the first Hebrew space tourist, blasted off on a trip he calls the Sky Mission, he was interviewed by Channel 12 News.

“There are claims that this trip is a way of whitewashing your image after your arms trading,” Channel 12’s Yigal Mosko told the billionaire, referring to Stibbe-brokered deals in the ‘90s with Angola during that southwest African country’s civil war.

Stibbe responded: “This mission isn’t about image. I don’t bother with my image.”

If this “mission” isn’t about image, why is it called a “mission” and not a trip? Who exactly sent Stibbe on this mission? If Stibbe doesn’t bother with his image, why did his mission hire a PR firm, Shalom Tel Aviv, which has been trying for months to make Stibbe a national icon?

Why has Kelly Ymar, a Shalom Tel Aviv spokeswoman, been bombarding Israeli journalists on WhatsApp every few hours with every peep from Stibbe, before and after the launch? (One example: “I’m attaching new material on Eytan in flight gear and the original spacesuit with a name patch and an Israeli flag.”)

Eytan Stibbe, right, with his flight members earlier this year.Credit: SpaceX / Axiom Space

If it wasn’t about image, why did Stibbe and the “mission” help fund Israeli TV reporters’ trip to the launch of the SpaceX Dragon capsule in Florida? And why did they forget to tell viewers that they had received a gift from Stibbe, as disclosed last week by the website The Seventh Eye?

Stibbe is a former fighter pilot who downed the most planes during the first Lebanon war four decades ago. The part of his past he keeps more obscure is the great wealth he accrued doing business with the Angolan government.

From its independence in 1975 until 2002, Angola was mired in a civil war that took a toll estimated at more than half a million lives. At the end of the war the MPLA, headed by Angola’s president from 1979 to 2017, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, overcame its rival UNITA, headed by Jonas Savimbi. Both sides were accused of committing war crimes against civilians, including in the ‘90s, the decade Stibbe started doing business in Angola.

At first, the war was portrayed as a struggle between radical Marxists and capitalist freedom fighters, part of the Cold War. The MPLA, the side Stibbe provided with weapons, was first helped by the Soviet Union, Cuba and the wider communist bloc.

But in 1993, U.S. President Bill Clinton shifted U.S. foreign policy and favored dos Santos, who became a devout capitalist, as did his daughter, Isabel dos Santos. Within a few years she became one of Africa’s richest women.

Eytan Stibbe, right, training earlier this year. Credit: SpaceX / Axiom Space

“The first female African billionaire,” PR firms in Europe called her, trying to market the so-called dos Santos kleptocracy as an awe-inspiring success. Many dupes in the international media bought this.

The family’s real estate, cellular-network, banking and energy businesses flourished while the family held power, becoming the subject of a criminal investigation immediately thereafter. The Luanda Leaks files, published in 2020 by the International Consortium of International Journalists, revealed part of what went on behind the scenes under dos Santos.

The report described tens of millions of dollars in “loans” (interest-free, of course) to Isabel’s husband by the national oil company, Sonangol. Also, the government evacuated a residential neighborhood in the capital Luanda to make way for an ostentatious real estate project in which Isabel dos Santos had an interest. Ultimately, according to the allegations, the money found its way to tax havens, moving from there to luxurious real estate in Europe, in the best tradition of the global shadow economy.

Israel, like the Clinton administration, also bet on President dos Santos and helped him stabilize his rule. Stibbe and two of his friends from the air force, Roy Ben Yami and Ami Lustig (now his rivals in a court battle), brokered arms deals. Under the auspices of Israel’s Defense Ministry, the three pilots’ company, LR Group, was linked to several deals for arming the regime.

The pinnacle was their sale to the Angolan government of two Russian warplanes that helped decide the civil war. At the same time, Stibbe, Lustig and Ben Yami became major developers of Angolan infrastructure, later expanding to other African countries such as Ghana and Ivory Coast, and outside the continent.

The SpaceX rocket carrying Israeli billionaire Eytan Stibbe and other passengers into space earlier this month.Credit: Joel Kowsky/NASA/AFP

LR Group expanded into fields like agriculture, medicine and cellular networks. Stibbe split off from his partners, subsequently investing in sustainability ventures that, unlike his arms deals, he made sure to publicize.

Stibbe isn’t proud of his image as someone who armed Angola’s government during the civil war, at least according to letters sent in 2020 by London consulting firm Schillings to lawyers for Haaretz. Stibbe’s consultants demanded the removal of descriptions of him as an arms dealer – the first such article appeared in 2002 – even though there is no dispute that he traded in arms.

Among their arguments, they said LR Group had sold two Sukhoi jets to the Angolan government, as well as Bell 212 helicopters and a plane with special espionage capabilities, but all this equipment had been intended for “civilian use” such as battling smugglers. Also, Stibbe was only a “minority shareholder,” namely one of three partners at LR Group. Haaretz’s editorial board was not impressed by these arguments.

Private trip as philanthropy

Media consultants for the "Sky Mission" call Stibbe the “second Israeli astronaut” – after Ilan Ramon, who was sent by the state on an official mission from which he never returned. Stibbe, in contrast, is a “private” astronaut, a definition created for billionaires like him.

Then-Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos speaking near Luanda in 2012.Credit: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

Stibbe’s main achievement (granted, no small feat) was having enough money to buy a vacation in space. It’s not that the story of Israel’s first space tourist isn’t worthy of attention; space tourism carries a great message.

Financially, this is a groundbreaking vision that could continue to fund space research and chalk up fantastic achievements for humanity. The notion that one day people who don’t have $55 million to spare on a 10-day vacation will be able to leave earth’s confines fires the imagination.

But with all due respect, the credit for this vision and its implementation belongs to Axiom Space – the company that owns SpaceX Dragon – which brought down the costs of space travel dramatically by reusing the launch rocket, which returns to earth and lands on a designated landing platform and is prepared for the next flight. Stibbe’s lack of any connection to this major technological feat is just one more reason the heroic depiction of his trip rankles.

True, Stibbe is doing some good things in space. He’s conducting a series of scientific experiments, as well as one “artistic experiment.” He took all this on at his own initiative, at the expense of his free time on vacation. But we can’t ignore that these experiments are part of an interstellar public relations show.

Regarding the term “second Israeli astronaut,” when it was convenient for legal reasons, Stibbe claimed that he was a resident of another country. The issue of his domicile came up in an exchange of letters between his London consultants and lawyers for Haaretz, the former claiming that Stibbe was also a British resident. This was apparently designed to underpin the threat to sue the paper in London unless references to him as an arms dealer in the past were removed. Legal proceedings of course are far more expensive in London for an Israeli newspaper.

The SpaceX rocket the day before launch.Credit: Joel Kowsky/NASA/AFP

When we asked Stibbe’s people if he was a British citizen for tax purposes as well, the answer was no. “He has an address in London too,” said consultants for Sky Mission, but Stibbe lives and pays taxes in Israel, adhering to local laws; that is, subject to tax planning.

Suckers for national symbols

The Stibbe phenomenon reflects the shallow public and media debate in Israel in which elements of national identity and emotion prevail, regardless of the amount of cynicism underlying their use. Journalists, politicians and actually all players in the public arena know that products labeled “Israel’s pride” sell. If it sells, why ask what interests the campaign serves?

The flag on the spacesuit and the Hebrew at the space station are the emotional openings through which the campaign of whitewashing Stibbe enters people’s hearts. Israelis don’t like looking like suckers, but they’re suckers for national symbols and identity. Regarding journalists, politicians and Stibbe himself – they’re only exploiting a business opportunity.

The Sky Mission said in response: “Eytan Stibbe is part of the first team of astronauts, all comprised of private astronauts. They are defined and recognized as astronauts by NASA and the space agencies of Europe, Japan, Canada and even Russia.

“But this is trivia, not the essence. Stibbe has chosen to dedicate his entire stay at the International Space Station to the Ramon Foundation, which is managing the Sky Mission. Stibbe has begun conducting 34 scientific experiments while demonstrating Israeli technology on behalf of academic institutions and technology companies, aiming, among other things, to develop critical drugs, scientific research and Israeli leadership in space.

“These experiments have waited many years for budget allocations for an astronaut, a resource that is expensive and very limited.”

LR Group said that it “deals with health, food, agriculture, energy and water with the aim of developing independence and advancing the social and economic welfare of people around the world.”

“When Stibbe was a partner in our company, he was responsible for finances and business operations in Angola. After he left the company, he acquired operations in Angola in 2012 and continued working there. Recently, current LR shareholders requested the Tel Aviv District Court to appoint a mediator to resolve a conflict between them and their former partner, Stibbe. Their claims reveal a series of wrongs they were subjected to, including false portrayals and breach of trust.”

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