Defense portrays Milchan and Lapid as close friends

In court, Netanyahu’s defense attorney accuses Lapid of being an unreliable witness

In fiery exchange, lawyer Amit Hadad points to discrepancies in opposition leader’s accounts and says he has lied about his IDF service, which Lapid decries as ‘malicious gossip’

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel

Opposition leader Yair Lapid at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's corruption trial at the District Court in Jerusalem on June 12, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Opposition leader Yair Lapid at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's corruption trial at the District Court in Jerusalem on June 12, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The chief defense attorney in the corruption trial of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to portray opposition leader Yair Lapid as an unreliable witness during his cross-examination in the Jerusalem District Court on Monday.

Lapid arrived in court for his first day of testimony as a witness to relate his experience when he served as finance minister in 2013 and was approached by both Netanyahu and Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan about the possibility of lengthening the tax break given to returning Israelis who have lived abroad, from 10 years to 20.

In court, the current opposition leader largely reiterated his earlier account: that he was approached twice by Netanyahu to discuss the issue, but told the prime minister it was not going to advance and then did not deal with it any further.

Despite the prosecution wrapping up its questions for Lapid in about half an hour, lead defense attorney Amit Hadad told the court that he intended to question the opposition leader for the two days allotted to him.

During the cross-examination, Hadad sought to poke holes in Lapid’s testimony, raising discrepancies in some of the details and implying that Milchan and the Yesh Atid leader had a close relationship.

In the sharpest exchange of Monday’s hearing, Hadad accused Lapid of having a history of lying about personal details, referencing discrepancies in the opposition leader’s recounting of his military service.

Amit Hadad, the chief defense attorney in the corruption trial of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, arrives at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, on May 8, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Hadad claimed Lapid has a history of telling “stories whose connection to reality is sometimes tenuous, sometimes nonexistent.”

“Perhaps the court will think that you used to tell stories and you are now as well,” said Hadad, to which Lapid countered that he will “not cooperate with malicious gossip,” and that claims he lied about his military service are untrue.

Hadad continued to press Lapid on the issue of his conflicting stories about his IDF service, and the opposition leader replied: “There’s a problem with liars, they think everybody else is lying, and anyone who is corrupt thinks that everyone else is corrupt too.”

The questioning on Monday centered on Case 1000, in which Netanyahu is accused of receiving lavish gifts — including cigars, champagne and jewelry — from the billionaire tycoon in exchange for attempting to grant him more of a tax break as well assist him with his US visa.

Netanyahu himself did not appear in court on Monday.

Lapid said that while he knew at the time that Milchan and Netanyahu were friendly, he had not known or heard anything about purported gifts from the billionaire to the prime minister.

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)

Hadad sought to paint Milchan and Lapid as close friends, displaying photos of the pair hanging out together, drinking whiskey and smoking cigars — all before Lapid entered politics.

Lapid said in court that he had worked for Milchan in Los Angeles for about six months close to 30 years ago, but that they were not close friends, though they did sometimes spend time together. Milchan’s daughter, Elinor, is one of the founding members of Yesh Atid.

Asked by Hadad, Lapid admitted that he was a guest in Paris at the wedding of one of Milchan’s daughters before he entered politics, and that the billionaire paid for all the guests’ hotel rooms. The opposition leader stressed that once he entered politics in 2012, he no longer accepted any gifts.

Hadad appeared to suggest that Milchan had approached Lapid about the tax break issue because the pair were friends themselves.

“Other finance ministers under Netanyahu were not approached by Milchan on the issue,” Hadad said to Lapid. “Why did Milchan only approach you?”

Lapid said he could not speak to any of Milchan’s other conversations.

Yair Lapid, left, and Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference in Jerusalem on July 3, 2013. (Flash90)

Hadad repeatedly sought to point out that Lapid did not fully recall the details of his testimony from the events of 10 years ago, as well as his testimony to police six years ago.

“You’re not speaking from a sharp recollection,” Hadad said to Lapid, who replied: “That’s how memory works.”

Hadad pointed to discrepancies between Lapid’s statement to police in 2017 and his testimony in court on Monday, including the location of his discussions with Netanyahu about the issue and the timing of their meetings.

Lapid asserted that despite the discrepancies, the facts remain that he had spoken twice at the time with Netanyahu about the issue, with the prime minister asserting that lengthening the tax exemption was a “good law” and Lapid replying that it was not a recommended path.

“The rest of it I don’t care about, I’m just playing along with this noise. The facts are simple,” Lapid said. He added that at the time, the conversations were “insignificant,” and therefore “it’s hard to remember the small details.”

The opposition leader said Monday that after Netanyahu twice brought up a question about expanding the tax break in 2013, he did not hear from the prime minister again on the issue. Lapid served as finance minister through December 2014.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid arrives to testify in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial at the District Court in Jerusalem on June 12, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“What was Netanyahu’s response when you told him the law wouldn’t advance?” Hadad asked Lapid, who replied that the prime minister “didn’t make anything of it” and didn’t appear particularly upset about Lapid’s response.

Lapid agreed with Hadad’s assertion that it was normal for the finance minister to receive a great number of requests about all sorts of policies, and that the approach from Milchan was not that unusual.

Lapid noted, however, that he thought at the time that it was strange to hear from Netanyahu on tax regulations: “I wasn’t used to the prime minister talking to me about such issues.”

The opposition leader agreed with assertions that his conversations with Netanyahu appeared to be an attempt by the prime minister to be able to tell Milchan that he had brought up the issue.

Lapid said it felt like Netanyahu had approached him “so that he could go back to [Milchan] and tell him, ‘I spoke to him.'” Hadad pressed: “You told the police that he [Netanyahu] asked you in order to ‘check it off’ and move on,” to which Lapid agreed.

Arnon Milchan accepts the Legacy of Citizens Lifetime Achievement award at the ‘From Vision to Reality’ event celebrating the 60th Anniversary of the State of Israel in Los Angeles, Sept. 18, 2008. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles)

Milchan himself is expected to testify via video link from the Israeli Embassy in London starting next week. The court has ruled that Sara Netanyahu can be present during Milchan’s testimony in London.

Hadad told the judges on Monday that the prime minister plans to watch the testimony from the Jerusalem District Court. Milchan himself has not been charged in the case.

The prime minister faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in Case 1000 and in Case 2000, and charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in Case 4000. He denies wrongdoing and says the charges were fabricated in a political coup led by the police and state prosecution.

Netanyahu’s trial began three years ago, and according to the current schedule is slated to last for another five years, although various reports have said that the extensive witness list could be cut down, potentially shortening the trial by a couple of years.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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