Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan confirmed in testimony on Sunday that he had provided an ongoing supply of luxury cigars, champagne, and other items to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara, largely at their request.
Milchan, who was affable and jovial throughout his first day of testimony in Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial, discussed how his gift-giving became routine, how he, Netanyahu, and Sara developed codes to refer to the different types of gifts, and how he gave his personal assistant “carte blanche” to accede to any request the Netanyahu couple might make.
The Hollywood tycoon, testifying via video from the UK, painted a picture of close friendship with Netanyahu, which largely aligned with the prime minister’s version of events. Namely, the gifts were made within the framework of their close ties, and not part of any quid pro quo arrangement, as the prosecution and indictment contend.
Right at the end of Milchan’s testimony, however, he conceded that, in the statement he gave to police in 2016, he said he felt “disgusted” by the Netanyahus’ lack of boundaries when requesting gifts, even though in subsequent testimony he sought to walk back that statement to some extent.
Although Milchan gave his testimony in good spirits, Deputy State Attorney Liat Ben Ari, who was questioning him, and defense attorney Amit Hadad were frequently at loggerheads. The latter objected incessantly to Ben Ari’s questions and Ben Ari herself alleged that the wave of objections was designed to hinder Milchan’s testimony.
Sara Netanyahu flew to the UK to be present in the hall in Brighton where Milchan was testifying. At one stage, Ben Ari alleged that Sara was communicating via eye contact and facial gestures with Milchan, setting off another heated exchange with Hadad.
Netanyahu is accused of fraud and breach of trust in what is known as Case 1000, in which Milchan gave Netanyahu and his wife Sara hundreds of thousands of shekels worth of cigars, champagne, and jewelry over the course of several years. Netanyahu is charged with having illegally provided various favors for Milchan in that time, including helping him obtain a long-term residency visa in the US, and attempting to advance legislation that would have benefited Milchan’s tax liability, had it been passed.
Milchan, 78, gave his testimony over the course of some five hours from a conference hall in the Old Ship Hotel in Brighton, and was in good humor for much of the time.
Several dozen anti-Netanyahu protesters made their way to the Brighton hotel ahead of Sara’s arrival, and shouted “shame” at her, in the vein of the anti-government protests that have sprouted around the country since the current coalition took office.
Milchan made numerous quips and jokes, and appeared relaxed and at ease, even calling out to the prime minister, “Hello, Bibi,” as Netanyahu entered the courtroom in the Jerusalem District Court to watch the proceedings.
At one stage, Judge Rivka Friedman-Feldman took exception to Milchan’s various witticisms, and told him somewhat sternly, “We don’t need any extra commentary.”
Under questioning by Ben Ari, Milchan acknowledged that he had given the Netanyahu couple champagne, cigars, clothing, and jewelry, and noted that it was he who had initially begun giving the gifts, specifically champagne.
After the first few times, however, it was the Netanyahus who made the requests themselves, and the three would use code for the different items; cigars were “leaves,” champagne was “pink,” and shirts for the prime minister were “dwarves,” said Milchan.
“I gave [Milchan’s personal assistant] Hadas Klein a free hand and said ‘whatever the prime minister wants — [you have] carte blanche,’” said Milchan.
“I was doing this not as a friend, but as a citizen, I didn’t want the prime minister to have problems not connected to his job. It became routine,” he continued. “The relationship was very comfortable so there was no bad feeling about it [giving the gifts]. The amounts got more and more at the request of the recipients,” he added when questioned about the rising volume of requests.
Milchan noted that Netanyahu at one stage had grown concerned about how much knowledge Klein — who has also testified in the ongoing trial — had about the gift-giving and intimated that she should be fired.
“Bibi thought Hadas knew too much, he worried that it was not a good idea to continue our employment of her because she knew too much,” said Milchan, although Klein was never dismissed from her position.
Milchan went on to describe how he felt personally close to Netanyahu.
“I saw him as a close friend, something between friends and comrades,” said Milchan, noting by way of example that Netanyahu sent him a letter after he was elected to office and told him it was the first letter he was writing anyone as prime minister.
“Brother, that was a very emotional letter,” added Milchan.
He said that meetings he had held in his various homes with Netanyahu over the years were mostly social gatherings, although sometimes dealt with other issues, and Netanyahu would sometimes invite his adviser, and now state witness, Shlomo Filber.
Asked how accessible Netanyahu was to him, Milchan responded that he was “very accessible,” saying the prime minister would answer his phone calls when he rang.
At one point, Ben Ari suddenly raised an objection to what she said was Sara Netanyahu’s behavior in court.
“Sara Netanyahu is here in the room. She is making eye contact with the witness the whole time. I want to make clear that it is forbidden to make faces to the witness, and it is forbidden to hint to him anything,” insisted Ben Ari angrily.
Hadad objected vehemently to Ben Ari’s complaint, and insisted that there is no prohibition against making eye contact with a witness, leading to a hostile verbal exchange, during which Milchan chuckled: “This could be a movie, maybe a TV show,” and promised flippantly to look at the ceiling instead of towards Netanyahu.
One specific incident which Ben Ari dwelled on at length, and to which Hadad raised numerous objections, was from back in 2011, when Milchan bought Sara Netanyahu an expensive piece of jewelry.
When the request for the was made through Klein, Milchan said he had initially refused to purchase the item since he thought it was “too much,” and insisted that the prime minister himself approve the request before he would go ahead and buy it.
Eventually, he spoke to Netanyahu and said he was concerned with the legality of giving gifts of such value, and requested the prime minister get the legal opinion of the attorney general before proceeding.
“He said he got approval from the attorney general and the answer was that friends can get gifts from friends, apart from a house, and there is no limit [to how much you can get],” Milchan recalled.
“I asked Sara to allow me to speak with her husband because I want to be sure he won’t get into trouble, that it is allowed. It had begun to seem to me a bit too much and I can’t judge what is [OK] and what isn’t,” said Milchan.
“I had no problem giving gladly, but I was afraid there could be a complication for the prime minister and his wife so I requested that he get a legal opinion from the attorney general, and he got back to me and said he got approval from the attorney general.”
Milchan’s testimony had been scheduled to continue longer, but he made several requests during the course of the day to reduce the amount of time he would need to testify, alluding to health problems, particularly with his back.
His testimony is slated to continue on Monday, before Netanyahu’s defense lawyers on Tuesday begin a scheduled eight days of cross-examination.