Second probe against PM ‘publicly damaging, but may not lead to indictment’

Second probe against PM ‘publicly damaging, but may not lead to indictment’

Investigators say matter involves businessman seeking quid pro quo with Netanyahu; premier allegedly asked Kerry for help in securing visa for friend Arnon Milchan

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a Conference of Israeli ambassadors at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on January 3, 2017 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a Conference of Israeli ambassadors at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on January 3, 2017 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The second corruption probe into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, details of which remain largely undisclosed, will be publicly damaging but is legally ambiguous, sources involved in the investigation told the country’s major broadcasters Friday.

A source told Channel 2 news that the case, reportedly known as Case 2,000, would cause “a public storm” and “public anger” but would not necessarily lead to an indictment. It involved an Israeli businessman, the source said, who had sought to provide benefits to the Israeli leader in return for receiving certain perks.

Channel 10 reported a similar sentiment from investigative officials, with the broadcaster’s reporters being told the case was “juicy” and publicly harmful, but was complex and not straightforward as far as the law was concerned.

Channel 10 said the businessman was a “central” Israeli figure who wanted Netanyahu to “take a certain decision,” and would reward him in turn, and that it was not clear whether Netanyahu had taken the decision.

The first probe against the prime minister — Case 1,000 — involves Netanyahu allegedly accepting gifts of expensive cigars for years from Israeli Hollywood producer and businessman Arnon Milchan, and gifts from a second businessman.

Channel 10 reported on Friday that in 2014 Netanyahu intervened on Milchan’s behalf and personally asked US Secretary of State John Kerry to help resolve a visa issue for the businessman, who is not a US citizen and whose visa is renewed annually.

Further witnesses are to be questioned in the next few days over the allegations against Netanyahu, and the attorney general will then decide whether to authorize a third round of questioning of Netanyahu, the TV reports said.

Netanyahu’s lawyer on Friday dismissed the seriousness of the Milchan probe.

Yaakov Weinroth rejected the notion that there was anything criminal in the prime minister’s actions and said he had nothing to fear from the second case either.

Attorney Yaakov Weinroth on Channel 2's "Meet the Press," November 26, 2016. (screen capture)
Attorney Yaakov Weinroth on Channel 2’s “Meet the Press,” November 26, 2016. (screen capture)

Netanyahu was questioned by police under caution on Thursday evening for five hours — the second such session in four days — as the corruption investigation against him gathered pace. Among the issues reportedly discussed was his alleged acceptance of cigars worth hundreds of thousands of shekels from Milchan, and his wife Sara’s acceptance of pink champagne worth hundreds of shekels a bottle.

Weinroth, who consulted with his client at the end of Thursday’s questioning, said “there is nothing to the allegations” as regards Milchan’s gifts. “Any reasonable person knows that there is nothing remotely criminal involved when a close friend gives his friend a gift of cigars.”

As for the second case, Weinroth said that he has heard Netanyahu’s answers and “I was and I remain calm… We’re not talking about money, we’re not talking about loans, we’re not talking about anything that constitutes a crime.” It will become clear to all, he added, that there is “no suspicion, no trace, of a criminal offense in all of this.”

Police have said a second, unnamed suspect has also been interrogated in recent days. Some reports indicated this second individual was Milchan.

Police said they could not provide further details on the second corruption case due to concerns about possible obstructions of justice. They did not elaborate. Haaretz said police investigators warned Netanyahu on Thursday not to discuss the case with other suspects, because this could constitute obstruction of justice.

Netanyahu’s office made no official comment on Thursday night, but the prime minister has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. In a three-hour interview with police on Monday, Netanyahu acknowledged that he had received gifts from businessmen, but insisted they were entirely legal, Weinroth said Tuesday.

Arnon Milchan, left, and Benjamin Netanyahu on March 28, 2005. (Flash90)
Arnon Milchan, left, and Benjamin Netanyahu on March 28, 2005. (Flash90)

Channel 2 news reported that Netanyahu received the cigars from Milchan over the last 7-8 years. Sara received bottles of Dom Perignon pink champagne worth hundreds of shekels apiece during that period, the TV report said. It specified that the cigars included Cohiba Sigla V, Trinidad and Montecristo, and said each such cigar cost some 250 shekels (about $65).

Netanyahu is known as a connoisseur of fine cigars, and Channel 2 asserted the prime minister smokes 15,000-20,000 shekels’ worth of them each month.

Some 50 people are said to have testified to date in the probe.

Sources close to Netanyahu have pointed out that Milchan — whose films include “Fight Club” and “Pretty Woman” — sits on the board of Channel 10, which the prime minister has previously tried to shutter.

Channel 10 is also partially owned by US billionaire and World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder, who has also been questioned by police in connection with the case. Lauder, whose family founded the Estee Lauder cosmetics giant, has long been seen as an ally of Netanyahu.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who is overseeing the investigation against Netanyahu, has said the prime minister is suspected of “receiving improper benefits from businessmen.” He has provided few other details.

Netanyahu has also acknowledged receiving money from French tycoon Arnaud Mimran, who was sentenced to eight years in prison in France over a scam involving the trade of carbon emissions permits and taxes on them.

The Prime Minister’s Office said Netanyahu received $40,000 in contributions from Mimran in 2001, when he was not in office, as part of a fund for public activities, including appearances abroad to promote Israel.

AFP and Times of Israel Staff contributed to this report.

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