More witnesses to be questioned in next few days in Netanyahu graft probe

‘Netanyahu asked Kerry 3 times to help his benefactor Arnon Milchan with US visa’

TV report says PM intervened with secretary after his Hollywood producer friend lost his 10-year residency permit; opposition MKs slam PM’s ‘corruption’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Berlin, October 22, 2015. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Berlin, October 22, 2015. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Secretary of State John Kerry three times in 2014 to intervene on behalf of Israeli film producer Arnon Milchan and arrange a long-term visa for Milchan to live in the United States, Israeli television reported on Saturday night, as new details emerged of the gifts Milchan has supplied to Netanyahu and his wife Sara over many years. The visa for the Hollywood-based producer was indeed arranged.

The question of whether there has been an illegal conflict of interest in Netanyahu accepting gifts from businessmen, and taking actions on their behalf, is at the core of an intensifying corruption investigation against Netanyahu, who firmly denies any wrongdoing.

Israel’s former foreign minister Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union) said earlier Saturday that Netanyahu, “living at the expense of others,” no longer had “the moral right” to serve as prime minister. Former Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich said that the prime minister’s acceptance of gifts from his “sugar daddy” Milchan was “corruption exemplified.”

Netanyahu’s former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon said on Saturday night, “It’s about time Israel had a prime minister who didn’t need investigating.” Corruption in Israel, Ya’alon added, “causes me more sleepless nights than the (threat of an) Iranian bomb.”

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who is overseeing the investigation of the prime minister, faces an acute dilemma over how to proceed, the Channel 2 report said. If he charges Netanyahu, the prime minister would likely have to suspend himself, and Mandelblit could then be in a situation in which he had caused the collapse of the government over allegations for which Netanyahu might ultimately be cleared. If he does not indict Netanyahu, by contrast, Mandelblit could risk creating a norm that would indulge Israeli leaders accepting lavish gifts, with potential for conflicts of interest and corruption.

In any case, the report speculated, Mandelblit would need to make his mind up within weeks, so that the investigation did not linger and complicate the governance of Israel. He might be helped, the TV report said, by the fact that many of the key elements in the investigation were not in dispute — including the fact of Milchan’s supply of cigars; what is in dispute is the question of their significance and legality.

Arnon Milchan, left, and Benjamin Netanyahu on March 28, 2005. (Flash90)
Arnon Milchan, left, and Benjamin Netanyahu on March 28, 2005. (Flash90)

Born in Israel, the LA-based Hollywood producer Milchan, 72, never became a US citizen, but used to enjoy 10-year visas to live there, Channel 2 news said. However, in 2013, he gave an interview to the same TV channel in which he acknowledged that he had worked in the past for the Israeli intelligence community. In the wake of his disclosures, the Saturday TV report said, Milchan — behind such movie hits as “Fight Club,” “Pretty Woman,” “LA Confidential,” “12 Years a Slave” and “The Big Short” — was no longer afforded 10-year US visas, and instead was required to apply for an annual extension.

Acting on Milchan’s behalf, Netanyahu asked Kerry three times in 2014 to intervene; restoration of a 10-year US visa for Milchan was subsequently secured, the TV report said.

Read: Film mogul, power broker, ex-spy, Arnon Milchan is central to Netanyahu graft probe

In the last few days, a stream of details have emerged of gifts and benefits provided by Milchan to the Netanyahus.

Netanyahu was questioned by police under caution on Thursday evening for five hours — the second such session in four days. Among the issues reportedly discussed was his alleged acceptance of cigars worth hundreds of thousands of shekels from Milchan, and his wife Sara’s acceptance of pink champagne worth hundreds of shekels a bottle.

A Channel 2 report said Friday that the cigar supplies were “a veritable airlift.” Netanyahu’s lawyer said earlier Friday that there was nothing criminal in one good friend giving cigars to another.

The Channel 2 report stated that Milchan’s gifts to Netanyahu began when he was opposition leader, and were not limited to cigars. There were suits, and meals cooked by private chefs, it said, and jewelry for Mrs. Netanyahu.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, confers with then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit during a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on December 20, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, confers with then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit during a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on December 20, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu is also facing a second corruption probe, details of which remain largely undisclosed, which will be publicly damaging but is legally ambiguous, sources involved in the investigation told the country’s major broadcasters Friday.

A source told Channel 2 news that this second case, reportedly known as Case 2,000, would cause “a public storm” and “public anger” but would not necessarily lead to an indictment. It involved an Israeli businessman, the source said, who had sought to provide benefits to the Israeli leader in return for receiving certain perks.

Channel 10 reported a similar sentiment from investigative officials, with the broadcaster’s reporters being told the case was “juicy” and publicly harmful, but was complex and not straightforward as far as the law was concerned. Channel 10 said the businessman was a “central” Israeli figure who wanted Netanyahu to “take a certain decision,” and would reward him in turn, and that it was not clear whether Netanyahu had taken the decision.

Further witnesses are to be questioned in the next few days over the allegations against Netanyahu, and the attorney general will then decide whether to authorize a third round of questioning of Netanyahu, the TV reports said.

Netanyahu’s lawyer Yaakov Weinroth on Friday rejected the notion that there was anything criminal in the prime minister’s actions and said he had nothing to fear from the second case either.

Attorney Yaakov Weinroth on Channel 2's "Meet the Press," November 26, 2016. (screen capture)
Attorney Yaakov Weinroth on Channel 2’s “Meet the Press,” November 26, 2016. (screen capture)

Weinroth, who consulted with his client at the end of Thursday’s questioning, said “there is nothing to the allegations” as regards to Milchan’s gifts. “Any reasonable person knows that there is nothing remotely criminal involved when a close friend gives his friend a gift of cigars.”

As for the second case, Weinroth said that he has heard Netanyahu’s answers and “I was and I remain calm… We’re not talking about money, we’re not talking about loans, we’re not talking about anything that constitutes a crime.” It will become clear to all, he added, that there is “no suspicion, no trace, of a criminal offense in all of this.”

Police said they could not provide further details on the second corruption case due to concerns about possible obstructions of justice. They did not elaborate. Haaretz said police investigators warned Netanyahu on Thursday not to discuss the case with other suspects, because this could constitute obstruction of justice.

Netanyahu’s office made no official comment on Thursday night, but the prime minister has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. In a three-hour interview with police on Monday, Netanyahu acknowledged that he had received gifts from businessmen, but insisted they were entirely legal, Weinroth said Tuesday.

Channel 2 news reported Thursday that Netanyahu received the cigars from Milchan over the last 7-8 years. Sara received bottles of Dom Perignon pink champagne worth hundreds of shekels apiece during that period, the TV report said. It specified that the cigars included Cohiba Sigla V, Trinidad and Montecristo, and said each such cigar cost some 250 shekels (about $65).

Netanyahu is known as a connoisseur of fine cigars, and Channel 2 asserted the prime minister smokes 15,000-20,000 shekels’ worth of them each month.

Some 50 people are said to have testified to date in the probe.

Sources close to Netanyahu have pointed out that Milchan sits on the board of Channel 10, which the prime minister has previously tried to shutter.

Channel 10 is also partially owned by US billionaire and World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder, who has also been questioned by police in connection with the case. Lauder, whose family founded the Estee Lauder cosmetics giant, has long been seen as an ally of Netanyahu.

Mandelblit, who is overseeing the investigation against Netanyahu, has said the prime minister is suspected of “receiving improper benefits from businessmen.” He has provided few other details.

Netanyahu has also acknowledged receiving money from French tycoon Arnaud Mimran, who was sentenced to eight years in prison in France over a scam involving the trade of carbon emissions permits and taxes on them.

The Prime Minister’s Office said Netanyahu received $40,000 in contributions from Mimran in 2001, when he was not in office, as part of a fund for public activities, including appearances abroad to promote Israel.

AFP and Times of Israel Staff contributed to this report.

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