The recent testimony of a British-American billionaire in a corruption investigation into Benjamin Netanyahu has reportedly “significantly” strengthened suspicions the prime minister received bribes from an Israeli-born Hollywood mogul in exchange for advancing his interests.
During his testimony, which took place a few weeks ago in London, Leonard Blavatnik confirmed to police that a media company he partly owns only purchased a controlling share in Channel 10 after he was approached by Netanyahu, Channel 2 news reported Monday.
Police are said to be investigating whether the prime minister intervened in the sale of the Channel 10 shares in order to financially benefit Arnon Milchan, a Hollywood producer and part-owner of Channel 10, who for years supplied Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, with cigars and champagne.
Monday’s report said Blavatnik also told police that as part of Netanyahu’s involvement in the deal, the prime minister requested he make an offer for the shares and sent his aide Ari Harow to meet with him.
Harow, who was then Netanyahu’s chief of staff, turned state’s witness in August in a that investigation, known as Case 1000, and a second probe, Case 2000.
In Case 1000, Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu are suspected of receiving illicit gifts from billionaire benefactors, most notably the cigars and champagne from Milchan.
Milchan, who was recently questioned under caution by Israeli police investigators in London, is reported to have said there was no basis for the bribery allegations against him and that the hundreds of thousands of shekels’ worth of cigars and champagne he gave to the Netanyahus stemmed from his years-long friendship with the family, Channel 2 reported earlier this month.
That story followed reports in Hebrew media that the questioning of Milchan, which took place over a number of sessions in London, marked the first time the billionaire was questioned as a suspect in the case. During the interrogation, Milchan reportedly denied wrongdoing concerning the sale of the controlling bloc of shares in Channel 10. Milchan noted that others, who are not suspects, had sold an even larger amount of shares at the same price.
Milchan also denied Netanyahu had intervened on his behalf with then-US secretary of state John Kerry to successfully obtain a 10-year US residency visa for him, saying he turned to many people for help and only asked Netanyahu to inquire after the status of his visa request, according to the Channel 2 news report earlier this month.
Police said they were pleased with Milchan’s “excellent” testimony, as it furthered the suspicions against Netanyahu, unnamed legal officials were quoted by Channel 2 as saying. They also said police were not expected to charge Milchan in the case.
Israel Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich later confirmed that Milchan’s testimony was “significant.”
In addition to Case 1000, Milchan has been linked to Case 2000, which involves a suspected illicit quid pro quo deal between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes that would have seen the prime minister hobble a rival daily, the Sheldon Adelson-backed Israel Hayom, in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.
According to reports, Netanyahu and Milchan allegedly sought to mediate between Mozes and a number of individuals to facilitate the sale of the Hebrew daily, among them Blavatnik, Australian billionaire James Packer, Oracle chief Larry Ellison, and Mattias Dopfner, the CEO of Germany’s Axel Springer publishing group.
Mozes is believed to have met with several of those potential buyers, according to a Channel 2 news report in January.
Speaking at an event Monday marking the Jewish new year, Alsheich said the the coming year would be “complicated” in terms of the corruption cases involving Netanyahu and that police have been “leaving no stone unturned” in the investigations.
Netanyahu, who has denied any wrongdoing, has increasingly lashed out at the media of late amid developments in the cases, accusing the press of playing up the investigations against him in order to end his premiership and devoting an inordinate amount of attention to weekly protests near Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s home in Petah Tikva calling for the prime minister to be indicted.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.