Aide to Israeli billionaire said to testify PM personally requested cigars

Aide to Israeli billionaire said to testify PM personally requested cigars

In leaked portions of testimony, Arnon Milchan's assistant reportedly says Netanyahu used code word 'leaves' when asking for cigars

Benjamin Netanyahu is seen with a cigar in Jerusalem on July 2, 1997. (Flash90)
Benjamin Netanyahu is seen with a cigar in Jerusalem on July 2, 1997. (Flash90)

An assistant to an Israeli-born Hollywood mogul at the center of a criminal investigation involving Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly testified that the prime minister explicitly requested expensive cigars, appearing to contradict the premier’s defense that they were just “gifts” between friends.

“There were times Netanyahu asked personally [for the cigars],” Hadashot news quoted Arnon Milchan’s assistant Hadas Klein as telling police investigators.

Netanyahu would call her directly, she said, according to the TV report. “He’d call them ‘leaves.’ Milchan didn’t smoke, but I notified the guy who works with him that he was paying for it.”

The report also quoted from Milchan’s testimony to police, saying, “These weren’t quite gifts. It was a demand. You don’t demand gifts. It disgusted me.”

Hadas Klein (Screen capture: Twitter)

A spokesperson for Netanyahu said the report was part of an effort to topple the prime minister, and repeated the premier’s mantra in denying all wrongdoing that “there will be nothing because there is nothing.”

The testimonies, as reported by Hadashot, seem to contradict Netanyahu’s main defense in the graft probe over the expensive gifts, according to which the luxury cigars and champagne bottles he received over the years were gifts from close friends, and not bribes.

In portions of her testimony published earlier this month by Hadashot, Klein had also told police that Sara Netanyahu would call her up regularly to ask for cigars and champagne,

“There were code words for champagne and cigars,” she was quoted as saying. “It went on for years. There was an understanding that Arnon had to supply the Netanyahu couple with whatever they wanted. The cigars were requested by [Benjamin] Netanyahu.”

Channel 10 news has reported that Milchan’s driver told investigators he was once forced to leave his home in the middle of the Passover Seder to deliver champagne at the request of Sara Netanyahu.

While leaked reports of the police investigation have indicated that Milchan spent some NIS 400,000-600,000 ($100,000-150,000) on champagne and cigars for the Netanyahus over the better part of a decade, the prime minister and his wife have reportedly told police that the sums involved were far lower, and that the gifts were unremarkable, since the Milchans were their best friends.

As for claims that Milchan kept Netanyahu supplied with expensive cigars on an ongoing basis for the better part of a decade — the lion’s share of the hundreds of thousands of shekels’ worth of allegedly illicit benefits — the Netanyahus reportedly told police he was merely a “social smoker” and that whenever his friend Milchan came to see him, he would bring just three to six cigars, worth about $10 each.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his wife Sara (C) and their son Yair seen with actress Kate Hudson at an event held at the home of producer Arnon Milchan (right), March 6, 2014. (Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)

In an effort to shore up the suspicion of bribery, police were also said to have asked the prime minister about a number of “favors” he may have provided for Milchan in return.

Pressed over reports that he asked US secretary of state John Kerry three times in 2014 to arrange a long-term visa for Milchan, an Israeli citizen, to live in the US, Netanyahu has admitted to making a request, but claims it had nothing to do with the gifts he received.

In addition to the US visa, police are reportedly investigating whether Netanyahu intervened in the sale of Channel 10 shares to benefit Milchan financially, and whether the prime minister sought to help the Hollywood producer secure a major stake in Channel 2.

As part of the corruption investigation, Israeli investigators in cooperation with Australian authorities questioned Australian billionaire James Packer, after months of unsuccessful attempts to set up a meeting, Hebrew media reported Wednesday.

According to a Hadashot TV report, Packer on Tuesday answered the questions of Australian investigators who had been briefed by Israeli police officials, as the Israelis listened in.

James Packer at a news conference of the Studio City project in Macau, October 27, 2015. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

Packer’s testimony was needed in connection with the criminal investigation known as Case 1000, involving suspicions that Netanyahu received illegal gifts and favors from businessmen in exchange for advancing their business interests.

The businessmen in question include Packer and Milchan. Packer, chairman of Crown Limited, one of Australia’s largest entertainment and integrated resort groups, is seen as a key figure in the ongoing investigation.

Police are reportedly looking into whether Netanyahu tried to help Packer gain residency in Israel and aided Milchan in a US visa request. Packer, who also bought a home next to Netanyahu in the prosperous coastal city of Caesarea, is reportedly seeking residency status for tax purposes.

Netanyahu is also a suspect in a second investigation, Case 2000, which is examining an alleged clandestine quid pro quo deal he made with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher and owner Arnon “Noni” Mozes, in which the prime minister was said to have promised Mozes he would hobble Yedioth’s main commercial rival, the freebie Israel Hayom, in exchange for friendlier coverage from Yedioth. In this case, too, Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing.

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