Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu aided Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan in his attempt to secure a major interest in Channel 2 television in late 2015, a period that saw the mogul bestow expensive gifts on the prime minister, according to new suspicions reported Wednesday.
The prime minister was even present at a number of meetings on the subject, the Haaretz daily newspaper said.
Both men are being investigated in police “Case 1000,” which saw Milchan supplying Netanyahu and his wife Sara with cigars, alcohol and jewelry to the tune of hundreds of thousands of shekels.
Netanyahu and Milchan deny that the gifts involved any exchange of favors and were merely gestures of friendship. But under questioning, both confirmed that Milchan had asked Netanyahu to help him renew his US visa.
Israelis can currently choose between three different news channels — the state broadcasting authority’s new Kan station (formerly Channel 1), and the commercial Channel 2 and Channel 10.
Channel 2 is operated by two franchises — Reshet and Keshet, which share airtime.
Channel 10’s majority shares have been held by British-American billionaire businessman Leon Blavatnik’s RGE Group since 2015.
From November, Reshet and Keshet will air separately seven days a week, even though it is not clear that advertising revenue will be sufficient to support both.
Reshet, according to Haaretz, is already in debt and has explored the possibility of merging with Channel 10.
Under the plan hatched by Netanyahu and Milchan, the Hollywood producer would have gone into partnership with Reshet — specifically, with controlling shareholder Udi Angel, the paper said. Then, at some point in the future, Reshet would merge with Keshet.
The episode began toward the end of 2015 when Milchan sold most of his shares in Channel 10 to Blavatnik, according to the Haaretz report. He then indicated an interest in securing another key position in the Israeli media industry.
The suspicion, according to Haaretz, is that Netanyahu, then communications minister as well as prime minister, stepped in to help. The paper said a number of meetings with various figures took place, all of them with the participation of Netanyahu, Milchan, Milchan’s Israeli business adviser Ze’ev Feldman, and Shlomo Filber, the director general of the Communications Ministry and a Netanyahu loyalist. One even took place at Milchan’s Israel home.
Filber himself is under investigation over securities offenses related to a merger involving the national telephone company Bezeq, which is owned by another Netanyahu associate, Shaul Elovitch.
Milchan needed Netanyahu and Filber because a merger of franchises would require regulatory changes, according to a source in the know, quoted by Haaretz.
If Milchan had succeeded, Netanyahu would have gained valuable influence over Channel 2 News, the newspaper report claimed. In the end, however, the deal fell through over opposition by the late Muzi Wertheim, one of the owners of Keshet.
Three weeks ago, police questioned Milchan under caution in London on suspicion of giving bribes.
In its continuing probe of Netanyahu’s alleged attempts to influence the Israeli media, Haaretz said it had evidence to show that the prime minister tried to advance the sale of Channel 10 at the time to Blavatnik, rather than to another potential buyer, Ilan Shiloach. This was because Blavatnik, unlike his competitor, was willing to pour cash into shareholders’ pockets — among them Milchan — as well as into the struggling station itself.
Netanyahu’s lawyer Yaakov Weinroth confirmed recently that he spoke to Blavatnik about the station’s purchase just as he spoke to “many others.”
Last week, the paper reported that after Blavatnik’s purchase of Channel 10, Netanyahu asked RBG Group’s director general Modi Friedman to appoint his former aide Ari Harow as chairman of Channel 10 News in order to “build trust.” Regulatory problems prevented Harow’s appointment.
In August, Harrow decided to turn state’s witness in the investigation into his former boss, Netanyahu.
Harow is at the center of another corruption investigation against Netanyahu known as Case 2000. Investigators uncovered recordings on Harow’s computer of meetings between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes in late 2014 and early 2015. In the recordings, the two seemed to discuss an illicit quid pro quo deal that would have seen the prime minister hobble a rival daily, the Sheldon Adelson-backed Israel Hayom, in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.
Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing.
A spokesman for Netanyahu denied the allegations, telling Haaretz on Wednesday it was “recycling… exaggerated claims again and again,” and insisting that the prime minister had acted in the national interest, not for the benefit of any individual, to bring balance and variety into the media.