Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his family were treated to gourmet meals worth tens of thousands of shekels paid for by an Australian businessman close to the Israeli leader, according to a report Sunday, as new details of an intensifying corruption investigation against Netanyahu emerged.
Police have been investigating allegations that a number of businessmen have given lucrative gifts to Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, over his years in office. Last week, Channel 2 news reported that Israeli Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan was one of these businessmen and that there may be up to four such benefactors. Milchan is alleged to have supplied Netanyahu with expensive cigars and his wife with champagne for years.
Channel 2 further reported over the weekend that Netanyahu asked US Secretary of State John Kerry three times in 2014 to intervene on behalf of Milchan and arrange a long-term visa for Milchan to live in the United States. The visa was indeed arranged.
In a report Sunday, Channel 10 said that in addition to Milchan, Australian billionaire James Packer was also paying for meals for the Netanyahus at their private residence in Caesarea, as well as the cigars and champagne. Packer and Milchan are friends and have mutual business interests.
Late last year, Channel 10’s Raviv Drucker reported that Packer had lavished Netanyahu’s college-aged son, Yair, with gifts that included extended stays at luxury hotels in Tel Aviv, New York and Aspen, Colorado, the use of his private jet and dozens of tickets for concerts by Packer’s former fiancée, Mariah Carey.
The report also claimed that a lawyer for Packer, Yaakov Weinroth, who is close to the elder Netanyahu, had unsuccessfully leaned on Interior Minister Aryeh Deri to grant the businessman permanent resident status, a rare status for non-Jews. Packer, who also owns a home next to Netanyahu in the prosperous coastal community of Caesarea, is reportedly seeking Israeli residency status for tax purposes.
Packer has reportedly given a police statement in the case.
Netanyahu was questioned by police under caution on Thursday evening for five hours over the illicit gifts affair, the second time that week. He has denied any wrongdoing, and his lawyer, Weinroth, has insisted that the prime minister has done nothing remotely illegal.
Police are also investigating another case, known as Case 2000, in which Netanyahu is believed to have offered the publisher of Israel’s biggest-selling daily Yedioth Ahronoth to reduce the impact of Yedioth’s pro-Netanyahu rival, Israel Hayom, in exchange for more favorable coverage.
A 2014 conversation to this effect between Netanyahu and Yedioth’s publisher Arnon Mozes is reportedly at the heart of the second of the escalating corruption investigation into the prime minister, which revolves around Netanyahu allegedly accepting illegal benefits of various kinds, including the cigars and meals, known as Case 1000.
Mozes, often described as a long-time arch-nemesis of the prime minister, is reportedly being investigated under caution by police, along with Netanyahu, over their dealings.
Police officers are said to be in possession of a recording that appears to corroborate the suspicions of a “quid-pro-quo” discussion between Netanyahu and Mozes.
The editor of the paper said Sunday that he had no knowledge of the affair.
Ron Yaron, Yedioth’s editor, said in a statement on Sunday evening that he’d had no idea of the Netanyahu-Mozes discussion, and that Yedioth is an honest and professional newspaper. All material published by Yedioth meets “journalistic standards” and appears for proper professional reasons, Yaron added.
Channel 2 reported that Ari Harow, Netanyahu’s former chief of staff, was present at the Netanyahu-Mozes meeting, and recorded the conversation at the prime minister’s request. The recordings were found by police at Harow’s home.
The evidence, the reports said, doesn’t necessarily point at financial favors, but rather indicates an attempt to forge a quid pro quo pact, under which the prime minister promised Mozes he would work to reduce the circulation of rival pro-Netanyahu newspaper Israel Hayom, the free daily which has eaten away at Yedioth’s market share, in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.
According to Channel 2, the talks were over shuttering the weekend edition of Israel Hayom, which is owned by US billionaire and Netanyahu ally Sheldon Adelson.
Channel 10 reported that Netanyahu also attempted to convince Mozes to kill a story about his son, Yair. It was not immediately clear what information Yedioth had on Yair Netanyahu or if the story was published.
Yedioth, once the country’s largest tabloid, is often seen as critical of Netanyahu, and he has complained of unfair coverage from the newspaper, amid a larger media campaign to push him from office.
A spokesman for the Prime Minister’s Office declined a Times of Israel request to comment on the reports.
According to Hebrew media reports, Netanyahu told ministers at a Sunday cabinet meeting, “Now that I know what is being [investigated] I can tell you with certainty: There will be nothing because there is nothing,” a mantra he has repeated several times over the last two weeks.
The prime minister said that the case was a result of “relentless pressure by media sources on the law enforcement authorities,” describing the suspicions as “nothing but hot air.”
A Sunday Haaretz report quoted sources close to the prime minister as saying he was surprised by the quality of the evidence police had amassed in the case.