Lapid to testify at Netanyahu trial Monday, bringing political rivalry to courtroom

A witness in Case 1000, opposition chief says he refused request from PM and Hollywood mogul Milchan to pass tax amendment while serving as finance minister in 2013

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and then-finance minister Yair Lapid during a press conference on a major reform of Israel's ports, in Jerusalem on July 3, 2013. (Flash90)
File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and then-finance minister Yair Lapid during a press conference on a major reform of Israel's ports, in Jerusalem on July 3, 2013. (Flash90)

Opposition leader Yair Lapid is set to begin his testimony on Monday in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s criminal trial, in what is expected to be an exceptional scene where a politician will give evidence against his main opponent in court.

Lapid, chair of the centrist Yesh Atid party, is a key witness in what police call Case 1000. His testimony is set to last three days and will relate to his involvement while serving as finance minister under Netanyahu in 2013.

In return for gifts from Israeli Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan and others, prosecutors say, Netanyahu sought legislation to extend by a further decade an existing 10-year tax exemption for returning Israelis on income earned abroad — which could have saved Milchan millions of dollars.

The prosecution claims that Milchan gave the Netanyahus luxury goods — including cigars, champagne, and jewelry — in exchange for the alleged service. Netanyahu’s defense in Case 1000 has said that he was unaware his wife was receiving gifts from Milchan and another billionaire associate, James Packer.

Lapid has said that during his term as finance minister in 2013, Netanyahu and Milchan pressured him to support the extension, to which he claimed to have replied: “No way.”

According to the indictment, the prime minister approached Lapid on two occasions on the matter, stating that he expressed support for the law and that he had spoken with Milchan about it.

Yair Lapid (R) sings karaoke with Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan (M) in 2004 (screen capture: Uvda)

The premier’s lawyer Amit Hadad is expected to challenge Lapid with the assertion that even discussing the matter was a conflict of interest, due to the opposition leader’s own friendship with Milchan.

According to Channel 12 news, the defense attorney is also expected to question Lapid on his connection with the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, which relates to another case against Netanyahu. The opposition leader is not a witness in that case.

In that case, dubbed Case 2000, the prime minister is accused of fraud and breach of trust over his alleged attempt to reach a quid pro quo agreement with the publisher of Yedioth Ahronoth, a major newspaper, to give Netanyahu more positive media coverage in exchange for legislation that would constrain the rival Israel Hayom daily.

Last month, Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Gilad Erdan, a former minister in a previous Netanyahu government, testified at the premier’s trial in a third case, Case 4000.

In that case, Netanyahu is charged with illicitly and lucratively benefiting the business interests of Bezeq’s controlling shareholder, Shaul Elovitch, in exchange for positive coverage on the Elovitch-owned Walla news website. He is accused of abusing his powers when he served as both prime minister and communications minister from 2014 to 2017.

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.

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