Sara Netanyahu, the prime minister’s wife, asked for and received an item of jewelry as a birthday gift last year from Hollywood movie producer Arnon Milchan, who only agreed to buy the present after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted there would not be an ethical problem, the Haaretz newspaper reported on Wednesday.
As part of a graft probe, police are checking whether the Netanyahus received some NIS 400,000-600,000 ($100,000-150,000) in gifts of cigars and fine wines from Milchan. The couple have reportedly insisted that the sums involved were far lower, and that the gifts were unremarkable seeing that the Milchans are their best friends.
Milchan had hesitated over the NIS 10,000 ($2,670) price tag for the birthday present, fearing it would be deemed inappropriate to buy such an expensive item for Sara Netanyahu, sources close to the producer told Haaretz.
The prime minister reassured Milchan that he had checked into the matter and that it was not an ethical issue for the billionaire to buy gifts for his wife, the sources told Haaretz. They added that the Netanyahus had obtained a legal opinion to back up their position.
A statement issued on behalf of Netanyahu stressed that “all of his actions were done in a manner in strict adherence to the law. Your incessant claims have no factual or legal basis and are intended to create improper pressure on law enforcement officials,” the report said.
On Tuesday, Channel 2 reported that Netanyahu told investigators that he didn’t know about the bottles of champagne gifted to his wife.
The TV station, citing leaked details of the Netanyahu interrogations by the police, said the prime minister distanced himself from the gifts of champagne — allegedly worth many thousands of shekels — and jewelry that Sara allegedly received from Milchan over the years.
Also on Wednesday, Channel 2 reported that investigators were trying to establish what Milchan stood to gain by providing the prime minister with the gifts. The probe is looking at how the broadcast authority dealt with Channel 10 television station, in which Milchan has a 9.8-percent stake, but so far has not found any wrongdoing.
In January, the financial daily The Marker reported that Netanyahu did not report his relationship with Milchan, as required, when he became communications minister in 2015 to prevent any conflict of interests, despite having been deeply involved in deliberations to prevent the channel’s closure due to financial troubles in 2014. Netanyahu has also reportedly sought to close the channel due to its critical reporting on his conduct.
According to Channel 2, Milchan at the time appeared to write off the television investment as a loss, not even bothering to respond to communications from the broadcast authority.
Reporting last month on what it said was the Hollywood producer’s testimony to police in the preceding weeks, Channel 2 said Milchan told investigators that cigars, champagne and other valuables he gave to the Netanyahus started as occasional gifts, but morphed into a steady supply. The prime minister and his wife would make specific demands, and even send him reminders, and he would send supplies, the TV report quoted Milchan as saying.
The television station also said that in 2004 Sara Netanyahu received a jewelry gift to the value of $8,600 from Milchan, but that the incident is not covered by the current probe due to the statute of limitations.
The prime minister is being investigated in two separate corruption cases. As details of the probes have emerged, they have also fueled speculation that, should he be indicted, his governing coalition could collapse, boosting the prospect of new elections.
Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing.
In the first case — dubbed “Case 1,000” — cops are reviewing expensive items the Netanyahus received from businessmen, primarily Milchan.
The second case, known as “Case 2,000,” involves the alleged negotiations with the publisher of the Yedioth Aharonoth daily, Arnon Mozes, and focuses on the prime minister’s supposed promise to advance legislation to hobble the Sheldon Adelson-controlled Israel Hayom paper in exchange for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.
According to Haaretz, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is only expected to give a decision in September on whether to indict Netanyahu.
Also on Wednesday, the state responded to a petition by attorney Eldad Yaniv demanding that Mandelblit be excluded from dealing with any of the ongoing graft investigations into Netanyahu due to a conflict of interest rooted in his previous position as cabinet secretary.
The state called for the petition to be rejected, arguing Yaniv’s claims are not based on facts and also have no legal foundation.
“During Mandelblit’s term as cabinet secretary, and so also today, his relationship with members of the government, including the prime minister, were on a professional basis and not personal or political acquaintance,” the response said.