'I want to arm every one of Israel's friends with the intellectual weapons for its defense," says Samuel (Shmuel) Flatto-Sharon, his accent and syntax making his Hebrew sound more like French.
To this end, he explains, he is creating "Jerusalem Network," an Israel-based English- and French-language, round-the-clock, commercial television station, the aim of which will be to counteract the virulent anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic propaganda that he says is broadcast daily on the likes of Qatar's Al Jazeera TV and Hizbullah's Al Manar.
We are sitting in his office on the top floor of Tel Aviv's Dizengoff Center - one of the mega-millionaire's many real estate, business and capital ventures. A parakeet in a cage on the window ledge serenades us while we speak.
Flatto-Sharon apologizes for the incessant chirping - a racket over which, he quips, he has no control. He shrugs and smiles, oozing the charm of one who is confident of and comfortable with the control he has over so much else.
But it is not the bird's singing that is distracting. It is rather the sight of the walls surrounding us, covered in original lithographs, among them a magnificent Modigliani. Just hanging there. Like a diploma. Or a travel poster. Nothing out of the ordinary. Well, at least not for someone like Flatto-Sharon, though his patronage of the arts - as some other of his pursuits - has been called into question. Police questioning, that is. (In 1998, he was arrested in connection with a fire in the basement of Tel Aviv's Mann Auditorium, as part of an insurance scam involving hundreds of paintings. The Jerusalem Post could find no record of his being charged in the affair.)
Indeed, since his aliya from France in 1975, Flatto-Sharon (pronounced Platto-Sharon by Hebrew-speakers) has been as infamous as he has been famous - with the cloud-cum-aura of his celebrity culminating in an 11-month jail sentence for cheating a French jewelry company out of millions of francs.
None of what could be considered his dubious dealings really made a dent in his becoming a prominent member of Israel's high society, however. On the contrary, the Lodz native (who settled in France after fleeing the Nazis disguised as a little girl) arrived in this country while under investigation for embezzlement by the French authorities. Yet he escaped extradition by getting elected to the Knesset in 1977... by openly buying votes. And his reputation for passionate outspokenness; political activism (for the release of Jonathan Pollard, for example, and on behalf of establishing casinos in Israel); and philanthropy (he is a regular donor to to the charity "Pitchon Lev") gained him at least as much respect as his financial exploits cast suspicion around him.
It is perhaps no wonder, then, that his current radio show, "Platto bli heshbon" (roughly translated as "Flatto, no holds barred") is broadcast on several local stations, and has a wide following. This he attributes to his no-nonsense, "telling it like it is" confrontations with politicians - a format that recently got him into trouble of another sort: being taken off the air for two weeks for calling certain Arab MKs "traitors."
Nevertheless, it is a format Flatto-Sharon says he will preserve in the televised interview shows he intends on personally hosting on his new network - whose studio across the hall from his office is in the process of being set up.
In this hour-long interview, the 75-year-old former MK and soon-to-be media mogul discusses the urgency for real-time responses to false reports on Israel and the inexplicable failure of an otherwise successful country to convey its message properly.
What gave you the idea to establish a network?
I've had the idea for years. Now it seemed more urgent. Communications is the one area in which Israel is a failure. In every other realm we excel. In fact, everything else we touch in this country turns to gold. There's no other country like it.
Let me give you a couple of examples. A couple of months after the establishment of the state in 1948, there was a first official visit by the king and queen of Indonesia. A few hours before their plane arrived, suddenly it dawned on [the welcoming committee] that there were no flowers to give to the queen. A plane was immediately sent to Cyprus to get a bouquet for her. That's because there were no flowers in this country. A mere 15 years later, Israel had become one of the largest exporters of flowers in the world.
Then there's the military. Not only is the IDF considered the best army in the world, but Israel used to have to rely on the United States for arms. Gradually, we began manufacturing our own arms; since then, we have become the third largest exporter of arms in the world. The same goes for the diamond industry.
I could go on endlessly with examples like this. Israel really is a magical country. In all of history, there never was a people who accomplished what we have achieved here.
So I ask you: A people who is capable of such wonders can't manage to convey a simple message? In that area, we're a bunch of idiots.
Maybe it's not that we're a "bunch of idiots," but that there's no way to convey Israel's message to an anti-Semitic world?
I don't believe that. In the first place, if you allow an initial lie to go unchallenged, it becomes perpetuated. It's like drugs that get into the bloodstream - it's hard to flush them out.
Take the example of [Israel's airstrike on the Lebanese village of] Kana [during the recent war in Lebanon, which was first reported to have claimed the lives of at least 140 innocent civilians, many of them children].
Eighteen dead is a lot, but it's not 140. Nor is it 40 children. Nor was it on purpose. It was a tragic accident of war. They started talking about 140, and it took us 10 full days to say that this wasn't the case. By that time, the effect of the truth was dead. The response to a lie has to be immediate. This is where my TV station comes in.
People who are willing to lie have an advantage, because they don't need time to research the facts of an incident. In insisting on upholding truth, Israel has no choice but to respond late to events, such as the one at Kana.
It's true that sometimes you need a few days to examine all the facts. But at least we could have immediately come out with a statement casting serious doubt on the accusations. Where Kana was concerned, for example, we could have announced right away that we knew there were far fewer casualties than were reported. Because we did know that for certain. In other words, the first thing we have to say in response to such accusations is: "wrong!"
Regarding anti-Semitism: It will always be around. But there are other voices, as well. Take, for instance, the 80 million Americans who support Israel, among them evangelical Christians, who love us more than we love ourselves. My network is going to provide them with material to bolster their ability to argue Israel's case. I want to arm every one of Israel's friends in the world with the intellectual weapons for its defense.
This is crucial at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise, and TV stations like Al Jazeera and Al Manar are broadcasting whatever vile lies about Israel and the Jews whenever they want. The purpose of my network, first and foremost, is to wage an intellectual war against those two networks.
What about other networks, such as CNN and the BBC?
Their coverage is slanted, but it's nothing compared to that of Al Jazeera and Al Manar, which are official Israel-haters. I mean, CNN and the BBC also hate us, but less so. I'll repeat here what I said on French television last month, when asked whether the problems I had with the French income tax authorities derived from anti-Semitism: "Do you know what the definition of an anti-Semite is? It's somebody who hates Jews a little more than everybody else hates them."
If you're "waging war" against Al Jazeera and Al Manar, won't it appear as though your network is no more than a propaganda outlet - like theirs?
I'm only waging war against their lies. Otherwise, I'm going to present factual news, features, interviews and talk shows. And - I don't know whether I should be saying this in the newspaper, but I'll tell you anyway - anything that can do damage to Israel will be left out.
Anything harmful to the state will be omitted.
Such as President Moshe Katsav's legal troubles?
No, no. Katsav is a prominent figure whose issues have to be reported. What I mean is that I don't want to include blatantly treasonous material, such as the lies surrounding [the counter-terrorism offensive in the Palestinian refugee camp in] Jenin [in April 2002, as part of Operation Defensive Shield. It was initially reported as a massacre of Palestinians by the IDF - reportage which was later proven baseless].
After the UN findings that a massacre had not been committed in Jenin, former education minister Shulamit Aloni told the French daily, Le Figaro, that "There doesn't have to be a crematorium for it to be a massacre; we committed a massacre in Jenin."
People like Aloni are diabolical.
So Shulamit Aloni will not be welcome on your network?
That's correct. We will impose an "embargo" on people like her. Or on people like the six IDF refusers who appeared before large audiences in San Francisco and claimed that the Israeli army targets children and rapes women.
Everything they say is a big lie! I had them on my radio show and told them they were modern-day Kapos [Jewish inmates who assisted the Nazis]. I told them that they know very well that we don't kill children intentionally. That even if a general commands a soldier to kill some [Arab] child walking down the street, the soldier won't do it.
Through my network, I want to tell everybody that ours are the most moral soldiers in the world. But, in order to tell them that, I have to prove it.
You say that you are going to impose an "embargo" on figures such as Shulamit Aloni. But many in the Israeli media agrees with her views. Who are you going to be able to hire to work for you if this is your position?
Only patriots. I don't care whether they're left- or right-wing. I respect all Zionists, regardless of their political leanings. On my radio show, I don't allow anyone to speak ill of Arabs. Arabs are not my enemies. Terrorists are my enemies. Traitors are my enemies. Not the Arab who wants to work and live here. Jews live in Tunisia and in Morocco, which are Muslim-Arab states. This is a Jewish state in which Arabs can live.
When I ask an Arab whether Israel is a Jewish-democratic state, and he answers "no," I tell him that in that case, he has no business being here. There's no getting around the fact that this is Jewish state. The UN General Assembly determined that in 1947. And we have to start defending and protecting it. One of the ways to do this is by taking back the media. This is a country that needs media like other countries need air to breathe.
I want us to stop volunteering unnecessary incriminating information about ourselves. When your child wets his bed, you don't go announcing it to the bullies in his class. You know, even in court, a person has the right not to incriminate himself. It's a Jewish and Israeli illness to harp on what's wrong with us. Everybody's always walking around saying that it's a shitty country. What good does that do? Why not stress the positive? There's certainly plenty to be positive about.
You mention those you are going to embargo. What about the figures you're actually going to have on the air?
I'm going to personally conduct interviews with politicians, and hold them accountable. For example, I want to pose the following to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert: "You've been prime minister for a few months now, and 80 percent of the public is against you. Why is that?"
I want to ask him why we have no social affairs minister, when we have so many poor and unemployed people. If Israelis are beginning to consider our socioeconomic problems to be more serious than our security and defense issues, we're in big trouble.
If Olmert can't answer that, I can answer it for him: The reason there's no social affairs minister is that he's thinking that maybe tomorrow the NRP or Lieberman will join the coalition, and he has to offer them ministries. Then I would ask him whether, because of politics, he hasn't given us someone who can take care of our poor children.
Then there's Defense Minister Amir Peretz. I want to ask him why he thought he should be defense minister, and not social affairs or finance. I want to tell him that he betrayed all his voters by turning his back on the needy.
So much for stressing the positive. Speaking of which, you've been trying for some time now to enable the establishment of casinos in Israel - though gambling is extremely controversial in this country, both politically and religiously.
In other democratic countries, people flood casinos all the time. Why not here, where we are so desperate for revenue? Opening five or six casinos would generate billions of dollars, and increase tourism by at least 3 million people a year - people who won't go to vacation spots that don't have casinos. That's the way people are. We're not about to create new people. We have to change our hypocritical attitude and give people what they want.
Allow me to play devil's advocate here. Using your argument that you have to give people what they want, one could say that people want brothels, and therefore we have to legalize prostitution. The fact that people want something doesn't necessarily mean it's good to give it to them.
Who can tell a whole nation what's good for it? A person can only say what's good for him. What is the state, after all? One hundred and twenty farkakteh ["crappy," in Yiddish] Knesset members - 80% of whom are idiots. Believe me, having spent six years in the Knesset, I know what I'm talking about. Those idiots are going to tell me what's good for me? They don't even know what's good for them! America is a liberal country. Everyone does what he wants, as long as it doesn't hurt others. In America, there are prostitutes and brothels, and it's done discretely.
We have to become a normal country. It can't be that the religious tell me how to live. And what's wrong with brothels if they're discrete? Why not? Who's going to tell me that it's not a good thing? It's good for whomever wants it. Anyone who doesn't approve of them doesn't have to frequent them.
Whatever you feel about the Knesset, it still is the democratically elected governing body. And whatever you feel about religious influence on your life, religious parties are needed for coalitions.
Well, now we've got a left-right coalition, which gives us the opportunity to change all that. Don't get me wrong. I have great respect for Judaism and for Orthodox Jews. I just don't want them to dictate my behavior. Not what I eat for lunch; not whether my kids take a bus to go to a soccer game on Shabbat. It reeks of dictatorship.
Where would these casinos be built?
The first one or two would have to be in Eilat. Others could be in the Tel Aviv area. Not in Jerusalem, let's say, out of respect for the Orthodox. Maybe in Netanya, Beersheba, Haifa... I'm certain it would be good for the country.
Are you not concerned about your reputation's harming your new network's standing?
In what respect?
You have a criminal past, for one thing. And a somewhat colorful present.
That was in the past. It's over and done with. Tell me, how long is everybody going to keep talking about that? That was 30 years ago.
It's true, I had some large income tax issues in France, and I preferred to have had big income tax troubles than small ones [he laughs].
So, you're telling me that some color is still there. So it's still there. What can I do?
Do people treat you like someone with a dubious reputation?
Not in the least. People see that I am a patriot. In fact, one of the biggest compliments I've ever received was from Army Radio. They told me, "You know, Flatto, we love you because you returned the power to the word 'patriotism' in this country. It had become something negative, pathetic. And since you've been working on that word for several years now, it has returned to our lives as something to be proud of. We owe that to you."
When I'm out on the street walking or driving and soldiers wave or blow kisses at me, that's my salary. And people stop me to tell me that they enjoy my radio show. That's because they know I'm right.
Let's talk about your radio show. You were suspended from it recently for using inappropriate language.
Yes, I was taken off the air for two weeks, and the station had to pay a NIS 20,000 fine. There's some kind of sick paradox here. I'm forbidden from calling someone like [United Arab List-Ta'al MK] Taleb a-Sanaa a traitor on the air. But he can go to Syria and work with our enemies, at the same time as he is allowed to visit the high-security facility in Dimona. And I can't call him a traitor? Nor can I call [Balad MK] Azmi Bishara a traitor. Yet he went to Syria and declared that all Arab power had to be enlisted against the "terrorist state of Israel."
When he returned, I had him on my show, and I asked him: "Don't you feel like a traitor?"
That's when I was suspended. Can you believe that? I mean, he incited against the state and I was silenced.
Do you attribute the popularity of your radio show to your blatant style of speech?
Absolutely. We even conducted a poll that proved it. I say out loud what other people are thinking.