Hollywood film producer Arnon Milchan provided what was described as “important” testimony late last week during a second round of questioning about expensive cigars and champagne that he allegedly gifted to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara.
Milchan met with police investigators at his Los Angeles home, Israeli media reported. Channel 2 reported Tuesday that the new testimony pointed to illicit benefits rather than gifts, and greatly increased the likelihood that police will recommend an indictment of Netanyahu.
The Haaretz newspaper said the billionaire movie mogul tried to soften some of the initial testimony he gave during a visit to Israel in November. The report came a day after Netanyahu was questioned by police for the fourth time in a session that lasted more than four hours, and was interrupted so that Netanyahu could take a call from US President Donald Trump.
Word of Milchan’s testimony “surprised” Netanyahu during his interrogation, Hebrew media reports said. The prime minister’s attorneys, however, denied this, saying reports to that effect were “erroneous.”
“The prime minister was not surprised by anything. The interrogation was to the point, Netanyahu answered every question and left the interrogation feeling completely comfortable,” the attorneys said in a statement.
Netanyahu’s lawyer Yaakov Weinroth also denied that Netanyahu was “presented any new document” during the questioning and said that police only questioned the prime minister over a separate investigation known as Case 2000 and not in relation to the gifts he is said to have received from Milchan, Army Radio reported.
Haaretz also reported Tuesday that Milchan apparently asked another billionaire, the Australian James Packer, who is a mutual friend of his and the Netanyahus, to help shoulder the cost of the gifts, thought to have run into hundreds of thousands of shekels, and that Packer paid a quarter of the costs.
According to Channel 2 news, during his interrogation, Milchan said that at one point he got tired of dealing with the gifts and handed the task over to his assistant, who also ended up providing information to police, including receipts. Milchan told the investigators that she was a reliable witness and confirmed the details of her testimony, the report said.
The investigation, known as Case 1000, is probing suspicions that Netanyahus took the items illicitly, as well as jewelry for Sara Netanyahu.
The prime minister has claimed they were “gifts between friends” and that he himself bought most of the cigars with cash given to him by “a rich relative.”
But according to the source quoted by Haaretz, Packer’s recruitment shored up suspicions that Milchan was not happy with the financial burden of maintaining the Netanyahus’ lifestyle.
That came on top of reports that Sara Netanyahu’s alleged demand for expensive jewels made Milchan feel “sick.”
Packer, who bought a beachfront property close to the Netanyahus’ private home in the upscale town of Caesarea, and who has invested in Israel’s tech market, reportedly treated the prime minister and his wife to gourmet meals worth tens of thousands of shekels, in addition to sharing Milchan’s bill and allowing the Netanyahus’ son Yair to stay for free in various properties he owns and rents around the world.
In the face of reports that Netanyahu asked then-secretary of state John Kerry three times in 2014 to arrange a long-term visa for Milchan to live in the United States, Milchan has maintained that he did not expect anything in return for the gifts.
In January, Channel 10 News said Milchan told police he had asked Netanyahu specifically whether it was legal for him to be providing the valuables he supplied, and that Netanyahu assured him it was.
Channel 10 said at least four businessmen in addition to Milchan are suspected of providing gifts, including diamonds, to Sara Netanyahu and their son Yair.
Among them is billionaire British-Israeli businessman Chaim “Poju” Zabludowicz.
Police still want to question Packer, the son of the late media mogul Kerry Packer, having failed to interview him while he was in Israel for several months recently. He is now overseas.
According to unnamed sources quoted recently by Channel 2, Netanyahu told police that he did not know anything about bottles of champagne supposedly given to his wife.
He has repeatedly claimed that the suspicions are baseless and that “there will be nothing — because there is nothing.”
But Milchan and his personal assistant, as well as other associates of the Hollywood producer, have told police investigators the items were bought at the specific request of the Netanyahus, according to reports.
The detectives, Channel 2 reported, have receipts and concrete evidence showing that the bubbly, cigars and some pieces of jewelry were transferred to the Netanyahu family in what is described as a “systematic” manner.
Last month, police said the Case 1000 investigation would likely yield a recommendation to indict Netanyahu.
Officials said they were looking at two options: accusing the premier of breach of trust only, or adding the more serious charge of accepting a bribe.
The prime minister is also being investigated in Case 2000, which involves alleged negotiations with the publisher of the Yedioth Aharonoth daily, Arnon Mozes.
That case focuses on the prime minister’s supposed promise to advance legislation to hobble his paper’s rival, the Sheldon Adelson-controlled Israel Hayom, in exchange for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.
Police reportedly want to interview Adelson, whom they have not questioned to date.