Aftermath of Vengeance

Robert Miller June 11 1984

Aftermath of Vengeance

Robert Miller June 11 1984

Aftermath of Vengeance


Robert Miller

The real-life tale of the controversial No. 1 best seller Vengeance, being marketed around the world as the true account of an Israeli assassination team’s deadly 1972-1974 mission to Europe, is a tangled saga of deception and duplicity inspired by the lure of large profits. Indeed, even before its official publication on May 10, Vengeance, by Toronto author George Jonas, triggered skepticism as well as outright denials of some of its central claims. But last week, for the first time, official Israeli sources denounced as “a crook and an imposter” the self-proclaimed leader of the assassination team—and the principal source of the book. Given the pseudonym “Avner” by Jonas, the source conceded to Mcælean ’s that he had been extremely incautious in peddling his story and that the elaborate security wall that he built around his New York existence had collapsed.

Avner’s story as a publishing property began in 1978. Since then, almost everyone involved in it has hoped to make a financial killing. But Maclean’s has established that the story itself underwent radical changes in content. It was worked on or considered by at least four writers before being offered to Jonas in 1981. It was bought as nonfiction in 1979 by Simon & Schuster, a New York publishing house which later considered it as a possible fiction project when Avner’s first collaborator withdrew because he doubted the story’s authenticity (Simon & Schuster published Vengeance last month). And Jonas himself never learned the details of Vengeance’s antecedents from either his publishers or his source during the 2\k years he spent researching and writing the book.

There were other surprising developments, including the emergence of a possible lawsuit by another writer. Lawyers representing the Canadian publishers of Vengeance, Lester & Orpen Dennys/Collins Canada Ltd., as well as Jonas and Toronto author Leo Heaps, met last week to discuss Heaps’s claim that he retains some rights to Avner’s story. In New York, Simon & Schuster’s editor in chief, Michael Korda, said he had no knowledge of an earlier version of Avner’s story purchased by his firm in 1979, although Toronto publisher Malcolm Lester said that he personally reminded Korda last fall of Vengeance’s previous incarnation. Louise Dennys, a

partner in the firm, had earlier announced that Korda had submitted the winning bid for U.S. rights to Vengeance at a New York auction organized in the St. Moritz Hotel by the Canadian publishers last fall. Lester and Dennys have a copy of a contract in which Simon & Schuster agreed to pay $125,000 (U.S.) for the rights. And they said that six U.S. publishing houses had been invited to bid on a confidential basis. But last week extensive inquiries failed to locate any of the other bidders. Said Lester, who had been helpful throughout the investigation: “We have no comment whatsoever.”

The publishers and the author stood by their conviction that Avner’s story,

as published in Vengeance, is substantially true. But Avner himself was deeply concerned because his true identity had become known. And he pleaded that the name under which he lives and works as a security consultant in New York be withheld from publication. Printing it, he said, would expose his wife and two young children to potentially serious physical harm. “Once the name you have is broached,” he said, “my life is worth nothing, my family’s lives are worth nothing.”

Maclean's agreed to withhold the name, even though it is too widely known to remain secret for long. The irony that a man representing himself as a highly trained assassin had been forced to seek refuge behind three innocent family members seemed to be lost on Avner, who instead criticized the behavior of the media. Declared the selfprofessed assassin: “I wish you to print this: there is dishonesty among terrorists and thieves, but nowhere near as much as there is among reporters.” Still, because of the style of the prepublication promotion campaign mounted for Vengeance, which included interviews with reporters in Canada, the United States and Europe, and be-

cause of Avner’s own flamboyant behavior, it was probably inevitable that he would be sought out and found. Avner insisted that his New York identity was just another layer of camouflage, but further inquiries traced him back through his various identities to his family in Israel itself.

Maclean's co-operated in its investigation with The Observer newspaper of London. Both publications began their inquiries independently but decided to work together two weeks ago when they

discovered they were following the same leads. It was learned that Avner personally peddled his story to at least five New York publishing houses in 19781979. Under the name of “Arik Shomron” he signed a $65,000 contract with Simon & Schuster on March 9, 1979, in which he undertook, along with a then28-year-old New York journalist, Rinker Buck, to tell his story. Six months later, after trying and failing to substantiate his source’s claims—which “Avner” was already revising to make them compatible with previously published accounts of the assassinations he claimed to have engineered—Buck withdrew from the project. He was later threatened with a lawsuit by the pub-

lisher. Buck wrote Simon & Schuster, explaining: “Had I been slightly less conscientious, or followed the advice offered me, Simon & Schuster could very well have published a book that would have been immediately attacked by any number of authorities as inaccurate, bordering on fraudulent.”

After offering the story—then entitled The Secret War—to two other writers, including “a top-notch novelist,” both of whom turned it down, Simon & Schuster gave up on the project and

began attempts to recover from Buck the entire $21,666 advance, which was paid when the original contract was signed. For his part, Avner continued trying to sell his story and eventually a business contact, New York impresario David Krebs, introduced him to Leo Heaps, who has written eight books, including, most recently, Hugh Hambleton, Spy (Methuen, 1983). In midsummer, 1981, Heaps brought the source and the story, by now retitled The Wrath of God, to Lester & Orpen Dennys in Toronto. After a month of negotiations, during which the Toronto publishers, in alliance with Collins Canada, offered an advance of $25,000 for world rights, the talks collapsed. Heaps broke off the discussions in a handwritten note dated Aug. 28. On Oct. 2, 1981, Avner wrote three letters. The first, to Heaps, cancelled “any previous agreements made between us concerning the writing of my book.” The second, to Lester, reported that the collaboration with Heaps had been terminated. And the third, to Dennys, the subsequent co-editor of Vengeance, authorized her to find another writer.

Within two months, Jonas began the collaboration with Avner which culminated with last month’s publication of the book. Prior to publication, Lester and Dennys claimed that Vengeance had attracted almost $500,000 in advance sales and had been sold in 20 countries. Also prior to publication, serialization rights were offered, under unusual security conditions, to newspapers and magazines. Maclean’s paid $3,500 for the right to excerpt up to 5,000 words of Vengeance before it was available in bookstores. The magazine decided not to publish the excerpts because it was unable to verify the story, but it carried a lengthy cover story on “the publishing event of the year.”

Before the book was published, Avner granted two interviews to Maclean ’s in which he acknowledged that he hoped to make at least $100,000 as his share of the profits from Vengeance. And he declared that his real identity was totally protected. He claimed that a worldwide network of friends would become aware of any serious inquiries about his true identity and give him ample advance notice that he was being pursued. He adopted the pseudonym Arik Shomron while trying to sell his story in 19781979, but when the project was cancelled by Simon & Schuster, he wrote and signed, with his own name, letters on the stationery of his company referring both to the book project and the “Shomron” pseudonym.

Last week, Avner agreed to an interview with Maclean’s to discuss his earlier adventures in the publishing world. But he refused to fly to Toronto and he insisted that the interview be conducted “in a West Coast city.” In the end, a

telephone conversation was arranged in the offices of Lester & Orpen Dennys’s lawyers, the Toronto firm of Minden Gross Grafstein & Greenstein. In the interview, Avner declared that he “made one or two mistakes on personalities” and claimed that “people I have broken bread with have broken their word to me.” But, he said, he had made a decision to “take some risks to get my book published.”

He refused to discuss in detail the

substantial differences between his story as told and sold in 1979 and his story as published in Vengeance. “I will not comment on any differences,” he said. “All I will say is that there is a final product, and that I am satisfied with it.” Told that the interviewer had acquired a copy of a 19-page outline for the original book proposal, written by Buck and revised and approved by Avner himself, which their literary agent, Donald Congdon, then with the Harold Matson

agency and now head of his own firm, distributed to a dozen publishers in late 1978, Avner said, “I am stunned that you have it.” He added that “We were trying to sell a book, to make the story as exciting as possible.” He also added that one explanation for differences between his story then and his story as told by Jonas might have been the editing process. “George wrote more than 650 pages,” he said. “Many things were cut out.”

Among the many major contradictions between the story told to Buck and the one related to Jonas: Avner told Buck in 1978 that his team travelled to Japan, South Africa and the Soviet Union in pursuit of Palestinian targets (Jonas’s book includes no such destinations); in 1978 Avner claimed that his team had full technical support from Mossad, the Israeli secret service (in Vengeance the team bought support services from a shadowy French-based

criminal organization which Jonas named “Le Group”); in 1978, Avner claimed that the first assassination took place in East Berlin, which his men had entered on false papers and from which they had a narrow escape after three days of evading the East German police (there is no such incident in Vengeance)', and in 1978 Avner claimed that he and the only other survivor of his team were summoned back into service 18 months after they had disbanded on good terms,

in order to help Israeli commandos carry out the celebrated 1977 raid on Entebbe Airport in Uganda (in Vengeance, Avner was depicted as being furious with Mossad after the assassination mission because the agency had taken more than $100,000 from his Swiss bank account in a futile attempt to make him accept an assignment in South America).

The Avner who lives and works in New York was born Yuval Abayov in

Israel, 38 years ago. (He has since assumed a different name.) His father, who died in 1982, was a driving instructor for the Israeli army, and his mother, Batya, is a German-born gentile who converted to Judaism, and now lives quietly in the town of Rishon-le Zion, southeast of Tel Aviv. His brother, Assi, 27, told Maclean ’s that Yuval had been a difficult child and had been sent to a kibbutz. But when Yuval was called up for military service he quickly devel-

oped into a first-rate soldier with a crack paratroop unit. According to Assi, a part-time actor and operator of several discotheques, his brother was employed first as a cabin steward and later as a security guard for the Israeli airline El AÍ from 1967 until 1974. Assi said his brother was transferred to New York with his family in 1972, and that he has lived in the United States ever since. Occasionally, he pays a brief visit home. El AÍ confirmed the dates during which

it employed Yuval, but refused to say what his duties had been.

Wolfgang Lotz, the celebrated “champagne spy,” who became an Israeli national hero in the late 1960s after he was released from an Egyptian prison, remembers being served by Assi’s brother aboard an El AÍ flight to New York in 1972. Lotz, whose real-life career closely parallels that of the father ascribed to Avner in Vengeance, said in a telephone interview from Munich, where he now lives, “I was en route to New York. I had just published a new book (The Champagne Spy, an account of his Mossad-conceived masquerade as an unrepentant Nazi living among Egyptian high society), and was quite well-known because of television appearances and the like. A number of people wanted autographs and Avner sensed I was being bothered so much he made an announcement to the effect that the captain was expecting turbulence or something and asked everyone to take their seats. I was grateful.” Lotz, 67, was scathing in his denunciation of the claims that Avner makes in Vengeance. “Absolute cock and bull,” he declared. “Why would he claim such things? Money, of course. Money, money, money. He always had some big ideas about money.”

Lotz was stunned when he learned that in 1979 Avner had told his first collaborator, Buck, that the champagne spy was his actual father and would eventually come forward to confirm details about the story Buck was then researching for Simon & Schuster. “More cock and bull,” declared Lotz. “Mind you, I knew his parents quite well. My late wife and I often paid them social visits. They were fine people, good friends.” Lotz said that the last time he saw Avner was in Israel, about five years ago. At the time, Avner said that he had opened a security company and even suggested that Lotz might work for it. Asked if Avner had been in Mossad, Lotz said: “Of course he was in Mossad. He had some low-level assignment in New York. But he fell afoul of them. He started spreading strange stories about purchasing scandals. I imagine they were happy to see him go.”

Lotz said that Avner would not have had difficulty in resigning from the secret service, contrary to his claims in the book, (“It’s not like the Russians, you know”), and he added that as long as Avner had not miscalculated and betrayed important secrets in Vengeance, Mossad would probably not be concerned about the book. “He may have lied and cheated,” said Lotz, “but if he gave nothing away, what would they care? What would they care if I screwed some American publisher, as long as I did not reveal state secrets?”

After Avner left the payroll of El AÍ, he worked as a security officer for a

number of firms in the New York area, including General Foods, The Wackenhut Corp., and City Security Guards, Inc. One of his assignments was to oversee security on a large housing project. But by 1979 Avner had his own company, which he still operates. Its headquarters are in a Madison Avenue office building, which he uses as a mail drop and message centre. Indeed, no fewer than 334 different companies list the same room number and switchboard on the building’s lobby directory.

Avner’s literary career began almost by accident when he was interviewed by Buck in 1978 for a magazine article on security at the housing development where Avner worked. Buck, now 33 and a staff reporter for Life magazine, recalls that after his 1978 article appeared, he and Avner met a few times socially. “He was a fascinating guy,” Buck recalled. “He seemed pleased with the story I had written and not long afterward he said, ‘Now I have got a real story to tell you.’ ” Buck was disinclined to believe Avner’s accounts of the assassination team, but he later mentioned it to an older colleague who urged him to try to develop the story into a book. Shortly afterward, Buck and Avner met Congdon, who represents such major writers as William Manchester and Lillian Heilman, and the agent agreed to try to interest a publisher.

Buck prepared an outline, which he and Avner revised several times until Congdon declared that it was ready for distribution. A number of publishers were immediately interested in The Secret War, as the project was then called. Eventually Buck, Congdon and Avner —who was the unquestioned star—visited at least five major publishing companies for presentations to editorial boards. At the time, Peter Schwed was chairman of the Simon & Schuster editorial board. He was also a frequent tennis partner of Congdon’s and, he recalls, he was very interested in Avner’s story. Simon & Schuster bought it. And after Buck withdrew, Schwed and Congdon tried to keep the project alive. But on Dec. 5, 1979, Schwed wrote to Congdon that the publishers wanted to cancel the contract and recover their money. In that letter, Schwed said, “We have made two attempts to salvage the idea and find a new collaborator for Shomron. One was even a top-notch novelist, because we felt that might be a more practical approach.”

Avner himself recalls having returned to Simon & Schuster after Buck withdrew. He denied that the company was concerned by Buck’s doubts about the veracity of his tale. “They had bought my story and they wanted to do my story,” he said. “That meeting had to do with possible writers, not the story

itself.” According to Congdon, Avner’s road show was a hit. Said Congdon: “Every place we went was absolutely fascinated with it, but [they] wanted more proof. Simon & Schuster took a flier on it.”

Buck began the project in good faith and with high hopes. He wrote two chapters which his agent said were acceptable, and then he travelled to Europe to do some firsthand research on Avner’s claims. He returned with more questions than answers and he engaged a Scandinavian researcher who spoke four languages to pour over back copies of the major European newspapers for supportive evidence. Buck patiently revised Avner’s initial account to square with the public record, but he quietly began to insist that his collaborator provide long-promised corroboration of his larger claims. When Avner failed to produce, Buck prepared a devastating 11-page critique of their original outline and sent it to Congdon. And finally, after a conference in which his agent sided with his source and urged him to return to the typewriter and finish the book, Buck withdrew, convinced that he was saving everyone involved from making a serious mistake. For his efforts, Buck was threatened with legal action and eventually got his lawyers to work out a schedule under which he would repay his share of the advance

money received from the publisher. In fact, he made one $1,000 payment, on Sept. 8,1982, and then stopped. He never heard from Simon & Schuster again.

Despite his experience, Buck never broke his promise to Avner to protect his New York identity. When he consented to an interview, Buck refused to say anything about Avner’s identity or background until he was convinced that the interviewers already had the information. And Avner said last week, “Rinker Buck is a very nice person. He has ethics. He will be a good book writer some day. But this project was too big for him. He was not up to the job.” That is an arguable proposition, at best. But the same sentiment had been expressed a week earlier by Dennys.

Both Dennys and Lester affirmed that Avner had disclosed his New York publishing experience when he began the Vengeance project in 1981. Said Dennys: “We were made very well aware by the source of all the antecedents to the book.” But no one disclosed the details to the eventual author.

For his part, Jonas, who concedes that he had little previous knowledge of the world of terrorism or even spy thrillers when he embarked on the project, said that he was “taken aback” when reporters revealed the details to him. According to Jonas: “There was no conversation between myself and Avner about I

any of the antecedents of the book. But we did talk about his total quandary about how to get a book published.” Jonas added: “I am taken aback by the publishing history you have described, but it would not necessarily indicate to me that the story my source has told was not true.”

At week’s end, as the book continued to sell briskly, Jonas flew to London to continue his exhaustive promotional tour. It was a fitting destination. The British publishing firm William Collins Sons helped launch the Vengeance project in the first place by buying the story in October, 1982, on the strength of a one-page outline written by Lester and Dennys. No author had been assigned at the time, but the price attracted by a single page, 56,000 pounds sterling, compared favorably with the $65,000 which Simon & Schuster had paid on the strength of Buck’s 19 pages in 1979. And the Canadian publishers —as well as Avner—were celebrating a neutral review in the Sunday New York Times. The review was written by Ken Follett, a best-selling author of spy fiction. According to Buck, Follett used to be one of Avner’s favorite authors, along with novelist John le Carré and thriller writer Frederick Forsyth. Buck, who had seen an advance copy of the review, said of his former collaborator: “I guess he finally got his book.”