The personal attorney of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, David Shimron, gave testimony to police investigators Monday afternoon in two criminal investigations looking into suspicions of possible graft by the prime minister.
Shimron testified Monday at the Lod headquarters of the Lahav 433 national fraud and serious crimes unit.
The first investigation, known by the police moniker “Case 1000,” is looking into allegations that Netanyahu solicited and accepted extravagant gifts from wealthy businessmen, including American-Israeli Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer.
The key question in the probe, according to law enforcement officials, is whether Netanyahu, who acknowledged accepting the gifts but insisted they were less valuable than stated by investigators, took actions on behalf of his benefactors, a quid pro quo that would amount to an illegal conflict of interest. The value of the gifts reportedly came to hundreds of thousands of dollars and included expensive cigars, champagne, meals and hotel rooms.
Netanyahu, who was questioned four times by anti-corruption investigators over the past month, has repeatedly denied the allegations against him, insisting the gifts from Milchan and Packer were friendly gestures.
Milchan has been questioned by Lahav 433 investigators twice so far in connection to Case 1000, and his initial testimony bolstered the state’s case for a corruption indictment against the prime minister, police sources told Channel 2 earlier this month.
But at his second round of questioning, Milchan reportedly “dramatically” walked back two key elements of his testimony. Channel 2 reported that Milchan retracted the total amount that he spent on the gifts for the Netanyahus and his assertion that the prime minister was aware of the cost.
Despite the shift in testimony, police were still said to be leaning toward recommending an indictment against Netanyahu, the TV station has reported.
According to other Hebrew media reports that cited police sources, Milchan told police he had asked Packer, who is a mutual friend of his and of the Netanyahus, to help shoulder the cost of the gifts and that Packer paid a quarter of the value.
In light of Milchan’s remarks, police began to pursue Packer for questioning, Channel 2 said, but had yet to pin down the globe-trotting billionaire. Investigators reportedly asked Australian authorities earlier this month to allow them to depose Packer, Channel 10 has reported, citing police sources saying he may be considered a suspect in the investigation alongside the prime minister.
Merely accepting the gifts without revealing the fact in a conflict-of-interest report could amount to a breach of ethics laws for the prime minister, but Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is said to be wary of indicting a sitting prime minister for ethics missteps, and has reportedly instructed investigators to seek robust evidence of actual graft before contemplating an indictment.
An indictment could spark a political crisis that might force Netanyahu to resign, though under the strict requirements of the law, a sitting prime minister is only required to step down if he or she is actually convicted, and only if the sentence includes a designation of “moral turpitude.”
One close ally of the prime minister, coalition chairman MK David Bitan (Likud), has insisted Netanyahu would not resign even if an indictment is filed against him.
Shimron also testified Monday in “Case 2000,” where the prime minister is suspected of attempting to engineer a quid pro quo deal with the publisher of the Yedioth Aharonoth daily, Arnon Mozes, in which Netanyahu would receive more favorable coverage in Yedioth in exchange for legislation that would cut into the circulation of Yisrael Hayom, a competing paper funded by American Jewish casino magnate Sheldon Adelson that is highly supportive of Netanyahu.
Tape recordings of the conversations in which Netanyahu and Mozes discussed the deal became public after police found them on the computer of former Netanyahu chief of staff Ari Harow in a separate corruption probe earlier this year.
Police reportedly asked US authorities earlier this month to allow them to depose Adelson in the investigation. The investigation is said to be focused on whether any part of the alleged quid pro quo agreement between Netanyahu and Mozes was ever actually implemented — the legislation in question never passed because Netanyahu called early elections in December 2014 just as it was advancing in the Knesset — and whether it constituted an illegal instance of graft.
In Case 2000, too, Mandelblit has reportedly instructed investigators to focus less on the wheeling and dealing with Mozes and more on the question of whether there might have been a clear quid pro quo in which the prime minister may have used the powers of his office for any personal gain.
Shimron himself is a key suspect in yet another corruption probe, “Case 3000,” or the so-called “submarines affair,” a graft investigation into allegations he used his ties to Netanyahu in a bid to influence multi-million dollar naval deals between the Defense Ministry and the German shipbuilder Thyssenkrupp.
Netanyahu is not personally implicated in the submarines investigation.
The State Attorney’s Office opened a criminal investigation into the affair last month, when Mandelblit determined there was sufficient evidence and testimony to warrant it.
Shimron is suspected of pushing for an NIS 6 billion ($1.5 billion) defense contract to purchase submarines for the Israeli Navy and other vessels for protecting the country’s maritime natural gas fields, an effort that could have netted him a hefty fee. Netanyahu’s own role in the purchase decision, including his insistence that Thyssenkrupp be exempted from the usual Defense Ministry tender process, raised concerns of a conflict of interest for Shimron. Part of the agreement being pushed by Shimron would also have seen ThyssenKrupp construct a lucrative shipyard in Israel, where the company would maintain the new vessels.
Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing in the multi-billion-shekel deal for the submarines, saying that bolstering Israel’s long-term security needs was the “only consideration” behind the purchases. Netanyahu had pushed for Israel to buy the vessels, reportedly against the wishes of the Israel Defense Forces as well as then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon.
The new submarines were intended as replacements for the military’s older models.