Asked why he arranged state chopper for tycoon, PM repeated: ‘I don’t remember’
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Netanyahu: They contribute to Israel. Cop: No, they didn't

Asked why he arranged state chopper for tycoon, PM repeated: ‘I don’t remember’

Leaked transcript details questioning of Netanyahu for ordering taxpayer-funded Jordan trip for Milchan to help him and Indian mogul with a private deal; PM: Part of economic peace

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a tour of the Jerusalem Police headquarters at the Russian compound in Jerusalem, October 7, 2015. (GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a tour of the Jerusalem Police headquarters at the Russian compound in Jerusalem, October 7, 2015. (GPO)

In the first leaked transcript directly from the interrogation of  Benjamin Netanyahu in any of the corruption cases he is implicated in, the prime minister, as reported by Channel 12 news Monday night, struggled to answer repeated questions relating to benefits he is accused of giving to billionaire benefactors.

According to the Channel 12 report, the undated transcript comes from part of the Case 1000 investigation in which Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit says film producer Arnon Milchan gave Netanyahu and his wife gifts amounting to NIS 701,146 ($195,000), mostly cigars and champagne, in exchange for favors.

The transcript features then-head of the National Police Unit for Financial Crimes, Coresh Barnoor, pressing Netanyahu to explain why he allegedly organized a state-funded helicopter ride for Milchan — and possibly for Milchan’s Indian businessman associate Ratan Tata — to meet with King Abdullah in Jordan. This was in the context of a plan to establish a free trade zone near the Jordan-Israel border that could have personally benefited Milchan.

The helicopter trip, according to Barnoor, cost the taxpayer tens of thousands of dollars.

Illustrative: An IDF helicopter near Jerusalem (Magen David Adom)

Netanyahu refused to say whether he was involved in organizing the contentious chopper ride, saying he couldn’t remember and also that it was possible, while at the same time justifying the move by saying that Milchan was there to “contribute to the country.” A statement issued later Monday night on Netanyahu’s behalf elaborated: “What the investigator failed to understand is today clear to all. Prime Minister Netanyahu was promoting strategic relations with India, which has since become key ally of Israel, and he was also promoting the vision of an economic peace, which was now expressed in the Bahrain Conference.”

Milchan is a central figure in Case 1000, one of three corruption cases in which Netanyahu faces criminal charges, pending a hearing.

According to police recommendations to indict Netanyahu in the case, presented to Mandelblit in February 2018, the prime minister is “suspected of working to advance a business project that Milchan had a direct interest in being approved as part of his partnership with Indian businessman Ratan Tata.”

A translation of the transcript, as set out by Channel 12, runs as follows:

Investigator Barnoor: “You asked to arrange a helicopter flight to Jordan for Milchan?”
Netanyahu: “I don’t remember. Possibly. I don’t remember.”
“What?”
“Possibly.”
“He says so.”
“I believe you’ve asked me once, I told you that it could be.”
“Do you remember arranging it for him?”
“Possibly.”
“You gave permission to the army? To the Mossad?”
“Yes, its definitely possible.”
“This is an acceptable thing to do?”
“Why not? Why not?”
“What do you mean ‘why not’? It’s a private businessman. Two private businessmen.”
“What private businessman? There are two things here…”
“Two private businessmen. He came to close a deal here…”
“No deal! Listen, Firstly, you asked me if I knew of any business connection between Milchan…”
“No, I asked about the helicopter.”
“Wait a moment! I don’t know of any business connection between Milchan and [Indian Billionaire Ratan] Tata. You asked me that. The second thing I know is this: I’m interested in this project, it fits exactly with the idea of…”
“We talked about this, but why the chopper? Do you usually arrange a helicopter for people?”
“Excuse me, if you do not mind…”
“Is it okay to arrange a state helicopter?”
“First of all, there have been cases of such instances… and the air force… what are you talking about?”
“What about private businessmen?”
“Tell me, are you talking to me? People come, contribute to the country, tours are done for them.”
“But they didn’t come to contribute to the country.”
“He did come to contribute.”
“Do you usually arrange helicopters for people?”
“Just a second, one second, I see it… Listen…”
“Who else have you arranged a helicopter for?”
“Listen…”
“Who else for?”
“Wait a moment… [Yes] I have arranged!”
“Give me an example.”
“I have [examples].”
“Give me an example.”
“Let me remember…”
“Give me one now, remember now. Don’t pull some document from a drawer in a year. Give me one now.”
“Wait … I can’t remember… How do they say? There were … there were things like that.”
“Give me one example.”
“I don’t know, I’ll find one.”
“One!”
“I don’t remember, but wait … Let me continue.”
“Two businessmen come, including Milchan… asking for a helicopter, it costs tens of thousands of dollars to the taxpayer…”
“You’re asking me about the helicopters?”
“…and you pick up the phone and arrange a helicopter for them!”
“Now I’ll tell you why I arranged a helicopter for them, if I arranged it.”
“You did arrange it for them.”
“Okay, and I … now … If I arranged it, I’ll tell you why…”
“Who did you arrange it with? From the army?”
“I don’t remember.”
“How is it done? How do you do that?”
“I don’t remember, but I want to continue for a minute, why did I arrange a helicopter for him?”
“To promote a deal.”
“Listen carefully …”
“That helps both them and the state.”
“Bullshit! Wait a moment.”
“How it helps the State, you’ve already explained…”
“Now I’ll tell you the truth. Your theory does not match the truth. Why?Because [this deal] is an accumulation of many things that I believe in… in the strengthening of economic peace… as a carrier of peace, and here someone comes up with a project that exactly fits the notion I believe in, of a trade zone between Jordan, Israel and the Palestinians! He is also prepared to invest in this… There is something industrial here that an Indian industry giant is bringing and I am very interested in promoting it. It is a national thing. I had no idea that Milchan was involved. I have a supreme interest in India… Do you know what it does for the State of Israel?”
“Wait a minute, watch out for the… Okay, we know.”
“No, no, no. You asked me why I was doing this, what my vision was, why I was doing it — here’s why.”
“We are talking about the helicopter sir!”
“No! Listen carefully! You do not…”
“You’re giving a speech now.”

Ratan Tata is head of the Tata business conglomerate and hails from a prominent Indian family. The largest company in India and one of the most influential in the world, the Tata Group and its subsidiaries own hundreds of global companies and financial services and are engaged in a similar number of quasi-governmental projects around the world.

Indian industrialist Ratan Tata at the ‘Make in India’ event in Mumbai, India, February 15, 2016. (AP Photo//Rafiq Maqbool)

The project in question was a 2009 proposal for Tata Motors, which includes the Jaguar and Land Rover brands, to build a low volume automotive assembly plant in the West Bank intended to provide skilled jobs to Palestinians. The estimated $250 million plan, which was proposed as part of an Israeli-Jordanian peace initiative, was set to include a free trade corridor to Haifa to offset higher logistic costs in Israel, the company said.

“The prime minister is suspected of trying to push the deal at the request of Milchan, against the opinion of officials in the Prime Minister’s Office and the Defense Ministry,” police said in their recommendations to prosecute Netanyahu.

A high level former Defense Ministry official, who asked to remain unnamed, confirmed to The Times of Israel that the ministry expressed its opposition to the project in a series of initial meetings at the time.

Testifying to Israeli police in November 2017, Tata confirmed that Milchan’s Blue Sky International security advisory firm provided services to the Tata-owned Taj Hotel Group, following the 2009 terrorist attack in Mumbai, according to a statement released by his office at the time.

Coresh Barnoor (Wikipedia)

The statement said that Tata told police that Milchan “was requested by a member of the Israeli security team to assist in preparing a concept plan for the project,” but that Milchan never discussed the project with him.

Asked by investigators whether the prime minister had been involved, “Tata stated that there had been one meeting of about 10-15 minutes where Netanyahu was present at which he had suggested one or two preferred sites for the plant,” the statement added.

Indian media reported that a concept layout plan for the plant was drawn up but that the project died a natural death when the peace initiative was dropped.

Netanyahu’s involvement, according to police recommendations, signal that his efforts on Milchan’s behalf go beyond changing legislation — as may be the case with the “Milchan law” — and extended to multimillion-dollar intergovernmental projects and even the sensitive topic of Israeli-Palestinian peace plans.

According to Mandelblit’s 55-page document announcing the draft charges to Netanyahu, “You acceded to Milchan’s request and carried out, within the framework of your position, a series of actions to move the project forward, on your own and through civil servants subordinate to you. As part of this, you met with Milchan’s financial representative, accountant Ze’ev Feldman, who told you about the project; you met Tata, Milchan, and Feldman in a joint meeting, and you summoned Maj. Gen. Eitan Dangot, then the coordinator of government activity in the territories, for an immediate meeting so that he might examine the possibility of promoting the plan; you made arrangements with defense officials in order to allow Tata and Milchan to fly to Jordan in order to meet with the king of Jordan, and you also arranged matters such that meetings headed by the director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office would be held at the Prime Minister’s Office in order to examine the promotion of the project.”

Mandelblit noted that “The project’s construction required large-scale legislative amendments” and that “Milchan had a significant financial interest in promoting the project.”

Arnon Milchan (left) and Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference in the Knesset on March 28, 2005. (Flash90)

Netanyahu faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in Case 1000. He also faces those charges in a pair of other investigations known as cases 2000 and 4000. The attorney general has also recommended Netanyahu be charged with bribery in Case 4000.

Mandelblit has said he intends to indict Netanyahu, pending a hearing, for fraud and breach of trust in Case 1000 and for separate fraud and breach of trust charges in two other criminal probes — Case 2000 and Case 4000, the later of which also holds a bribery charge for the prime minister. Milchan has not been charged.

Netanyahu’s pre-indictment hearing with Mandelblit is scheduled for October 2-3, after the attorney general declined last month to delay it due to the September 17 elections.

Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing in all cases and says he is the victim of a political witch hunt.

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