Isabel Maxwell: I think my fathers death was an accident, my sister thinks it was murder

Robert Maxwells daughter is a woman for all seasons. Her company devised the first Internet search engine, and she has been involved in high tech ever since. She is also intensively involved in social welfare and politics in Israel.

14 years after the death of her father, Robert Maxwell, Isabel Maxwell divides her time between Israel and California. She does voluntary work for her soul and high-tech work for her living. She says her family was left with almost nothing of her fathers billions. She looks reality straight in the face, and thinks of the future, not the past (she says that her father was the same way). She lives intensively, including innumerable flights back and forth between Tel Aviv and San Francisco, not infrequently tourist class.

Maxwell is very involved in Israeli politics. She is in touch with Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak, acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Labor MK Yuli Tamir, former Minister of Justice and Shinui partly leader Joseph (Tomy) Lapid, and many others. She is a member of the Peres Center for Peace international board, and the governing board of the American Friends of the Yitzhak Rabin Center for Israel Studies. Before the intifada, she used to travel to Ramallah to meet with Palestinian leaders.

The list of Maxwells social welfare activities seems almost endless. She is especially proud of her job as chairperson of the Israel Venture Networks Social Entrepreneur Fellowship Program, and her membership on the board of directors of Israel21c, an NGO dedicated to enhancing Israels global reputation.

IVN focuses on improving the educational system, leadership, and economic development. In 2005, the fellowship program granted $200,000 to four entrepreneurs whose inventions contributed to society as a whole. Maxwell says, Research in the past 15 years shows that Israels education system is changing, but not in the right direction. On the average, 40% of children dont read at the level they should. A special project by IVN in cooperation with the Sacta-Rashi Foundation discovered that the most important thing is not whether a school is good or bad, or the state of the neighborhood in which it is located. The crucial question is the principals personality.

We conducted a preliminary experiment with school principals in Tiberias. We held a course for them, in which they learned basic elements of management. The result was that 97.5% of the children read at the desired level -- not because we did something clever, but because we simply went back to basics. The project is now rapidly moving to other places. Its something unique to Israel; in a very short time, you can have a significant effect, for better or worse.

Maxwell serves on the Israel21c board together with a collection of Jewish leaders and business people. They are trying to publicize Israel in contexts other than military and security. To date, Israel21c has published over 3,000 stories on a special Internet site. Each of these stories presents a different aspect of Israels success: inventions and special developments in agriculture, medicine, and high-tech; successful Israeli women basketball players at US colleges; and Israel models publicizing Israeli tourist sites. Maxwell believes that, in time, these stories will lead to a broader and more diverse perception of what Israel actually is.

He wasnt the suicidal type

On November 5, 1991, Robert Maxwell fell to his death from the deck of his private luxury yacht, near the Spanish-owned Atlantic Ocean island of Tenerife. The circumstances of his fall remain an unsolved mystery to this day. The Spanish investigating magistrate ruled out the possibility of murder, but cited no other cause for the 68 year-old billionaires fall from his yacht in the middle of the night.

Up until this interview, Maxwell had never spoken in public about the circumstances of her fathers death. Nor had she ever commented publicly about the loaded inheritance he left to his children, who fought for years to preserve their good name and the remainder of his money.

"Globes": Do you believe that your father committed suicide?

Maxwell: No, I dont. He wasnt the suicidal type. He was the ultimate survivor.

Did he fall into the water, or was he pushed?

I believe that it was an accident. My sister thinks it was murder.

What makes her think that?

There were some strange things for which I still have no explanation.

For example?

Somebody from crew of his airplane came with him to the yacht, and photographed him. In retrospect, its clear that these were really the last pictures of him. After his death, she called me. I met her, and took the film to the office of the Daily Mirror newspaper (which Robert Maxwell owned, R.A.). I gave the film to a trustworthy journalist, who went downstairs to develop it. He later called me, and said that there was nothing on the film. How could there be nothing on the film? The film was cut, and showed nobody and nothing. There were other small things like that, for which there is no explanation of how they happened.

For example, the door of my fathers cabin on the yacht was locked on the inside. My father was a large man; he couldnt have got out by the window. I read the report by the pathologist who performed the autopsy on my father in Israel, which was not an easy experience (parts of the body were missing, having been left with the investigators in Spain, R.A.). The autopsy report showed tension in the area of the muscles and the spinal column, which indicates that my father hung by one arm for a long time. Im familiar with the yacht and the place he fell from. The boat was not an unsteady one that you would fall from. A suicide doesnt hang by one arm for a long time.

Did you try to investigate the event yourselves?

When it happened, we were too shocked to conduct our own investigation. Whats even more peculiar, however, is that the British government did not conduct an investigation, even though one of the UKs more famous subjects in such a powerful position simply disappeared. Im unaware of any such investigation.

Are you angry?

As far as Im concerned, nothing will bring him back. We move on. He would be happy and proud of what Im doing, and would be gratified that Alexander is interested in Israel (Isabel Maxwells son, Alexander, spend last summer in Israel, and chose the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip as the subject for his thesis in his public policy studies at Princeton, R.A.).

We didnt have the money for a war

For a time, in the 1980s, Robert Maxwell was the UKs most prominent communications tycoon. He owned the Daily Mirror, Macmillan Publishers Ltd., the New York Daily News, the Berlitz chain of language schools, and the MTV Europe music television station. He later added Maariv to his expanding media empire, and had a great deal of other business in Israel. Among other things, he acquired 25% of Scitex (Nasdaq: SCIX; TASE: SCIX) in 1988, and bought a fairly large stake in Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. (Nasdaq: TEVA; TASE: TEVA).

Only after his death was it learned that Robert Maxwells empire was mired in an estimated 2 billion debt. His employees were astounded to discover that, as part of his attempts at economic survival, he had used 400 million illegitimately removed from their pension funds. Exposure of these facts rocked the UK. His political associates in the UK and Israel hurriedly disavowed the connection they had formerly boasted of. Following a search for the remaining money, Isabel Maxwell discovered that, of her fathers billions, nothing was left for his family.

I didnt expect to get anything, but I didnt expect debts, either, and these were serious debts, she says. After my father died, the Arthur Andersen accounting firm, which was the receiver, persecuted us in civil courts in the US. We couldnt fight them, because we didnt have the money to do it.

Robert Maxwells mysterious death deprived his family of huge compensation from his insurance company. Furthermore, the unsolved mystery has given the family no peace to this day. Its like living death. Theres always a flow of material surfacing, and you dont know whats coming next, Isabel Maxwell says.

Speculation continues, and theories rise and fall. As Maxwell says, Many people have made their fortunes from my fathers death. They write, and people go on buying.

Its possible to understand the interest he still arouses. Beyond the circumstances of his death, his image is simply riveting. How do you see your father today?

Not too often, she remarks, with a dose of light British sarcasm, gently hinting that my question was phrased Hebraically. My father wasnt the Good Fairy or Mother Teresa, but he wasnt the Satan incarnate that the British portrayed and planted deep in the British subconscious, either.

What was he, then?

He was a very charismatic man, with internal conflicts. He was the uneducated son of peasants. All the people in his village in Czechoslovakia were wiped out, and he grew beyond his expected biography. His fate dictated that he would do things in his life, and he lived life to the full. He had a large family, and a large house, which he filled with guests. He never wanted to look back, only forward, because the past was painful and intolerable.

As a survivor, he observed no laws in any of his day-to-day activity. He did what he had to do. He fought in the army, and was a Labor member of Parliament. After the atomic bomb was dropped, he woke up, and decided that scientific discoveries had to be documented. After making this decision, he supported 600 scientific and educational publications around the world. To this day, when I visit remote locations, even the farthest reaches of India, I find people to whom my father donated 500 in the 1960s. For me, this was his biggest contribution.

Youre very active in social welfare organizations now. I assume that its hard for you to live with the knowledge that money was fraudulently withdrawn from the pension funds of your fathers employees.

Obviously, its terrible, but it could have ended differently. Had my father lived, they wouldnt have made such a fire sale of his assets. The receivers got rid of his empire at rock bottom prices. Had they done it in a more organized way, several million dollars more could have been obtained, which would have gone back into the pension funds. Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs returned hundreds of millions of dollars that wasnt reported in the press, which demonized my father.

Emotionally were in the stone age

Isabel Maxwells specialty is communications, although her formal education at Oxford includes a BA and MA in law, history, and French. She was a moviemaker for 15 years, with independent and documentary films to her credit. She was one of the founders of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts in Los Angeles, and produced and directed a number of films herself.

Her first success, however -- and her source of income every since -- was in Internet and high tech. In 1992, she and her twin sister, Christine, founded The McKinley Group, which developed Magellan, the worlds first Internet search engine. For lack of capital, they sold the company to Excite in 1996.

Isabel Maxwell remained in high tech, and a placement company put her in touch in 1997 with Israeli company Commtouch Software Ltd. (Nasdaq: CTCH), which had only just come to Silicon Valley. She worked with the company a number of years, and remained its honorary president.

Over the years, she developed a specialty of helping Israeli high-tech companies. She says that in many Israeli companies, The founder or president is used to connections with foreigners, and at their level, it works. The problem is that, after agreements are signed, when VPs and CEOs take over the handling of the deal, the level of communications sinks dramatically.

Maxwell created a unique niche for herself in high tech as a liaison between Israeli companies in the initial development stages and private angel investors in the US. At the same time, she helps US companies interested in opening development centers in Israel. Among other things, she was CEO of iCognito Technologies (now named PureSight), which develops software to filter content on the Internet and cellular networks. The company overcame a crisis, and was sold to Boston Communications Group Inc. (BCGI) in the middle of last year. Maxwell is currently a partner in a firm with Sales Gate International founder Alon Lifshitz. The firm specializes in helping Israeli companies in the Asian market.

Everyone who has worked closely with Maxwell says that her advantage lies in her ability to help penetrate the market with a new product by opening the right doors. She does things in unique ways, like sending the president of Compaq a letter decorated with stars. She doesnt always us conventional methods, but it worked, says Commtouch co-founder and CEO Gideon Mantel. Her network of acquaintances spans the globe, and if the product requires reaching the senior levels at Yahoo! or Google, shell manage to do it.

Her name helps her with Israelis, who remember the slogan, Maxwell bought me that accompanied her father when he was acquiring companies at the rate at which normal people change socks. Mantel, for example, went to Isabel Maxwell as soon as he arrived in Silicon Valley and realized that in order to progress, an e-mail solutions company like Commtouch needed help from someone who knew the rules of the game. She was appointed president, and greatly helped raise Commtouchs profile. When the promises were not fulfilled, and the companys share plummeted, she took criticism together with the other company executives, and did not jump ship.

Maxwell now spends a lot of time on traveling, including to Nepal, whose people she likes for their friendliness and creativity. The Nepalese have many gods in every corner, and they accept things the way they are, she says in explanation of her affection for them. A baby starting its life accepts the world as it is. Our life begins as utopia. Only when we grow older does it break into different segments: work, children, love. People seek to regain this integration all their lives, and I think its possible.

Doesnt that sound a little New Age?

No. New Age is a negative concept, but Im talking about the connection between words and matter. Im a big believer in the connection between people. Despite all the technological developments, you cant completely replace the human connection. What I mean is that we may have made great intellectual progress, but emotionally, were still in the Stone Age.

What do you mean?

Feelings are something very basic: fear, love, anger, and everything that results from them. People internalize traumas and tragedies, and children learn from it. I learned that people often respond to things having nothing to do with the people theyre talking to. Once I know the agenda of the person sitting opposite me -- their reasons and motives -- I get along. I also know the difference between a friend, an acquaintance, and a colleague.

Whats your opinion of Israelis?

Theyre in-your-face types. Theyre a little too forceful, although theyre not that crude in business. Theyre like in the Wild West: shoot first, and ask questions later. On the other hand, they work even on weekends, if its necessary.

Published by Globes [online] - - on February 9, 2006

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