Police to recommend Netanyahu stand trial in both graft cases — report

PM faces seventh and last interrogation Friday over gifts from businessmen and a suspected deal with a newspaper publisher

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a tour of the Jerusalem Police headquarters at the Russian compound in Jerusalem, October 7, 2015. (Mark Sellem/Pool)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a tour of the Jerusalem Police headquarters at the Russian compound in Jerusalem, October 7, 2015. (Mark Sellem/Pool)

Police are reportedly planning on recommending that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stand trial in two criminal cases currently open against him over suspicions he received illegal gifts and favors from businessmen while advancing their interests.

Netanyahu will be questioned Friday morning for the seventh time and last time in the year-long probes and will be presented with a testimony given by Australian billionaire James Packer that has strengthened the likelihood of bribery charges against him, Hadashot TV news reported Thursday.

It will be his last opportunity to refute the suspicions before police pass the case on to the State Prosecution for a decision on which charges, if any, will be brought against him, the report said

In cooperation with Australian authorities, Israeli police questioned Packer last month after many months of unsuccessful attempts to set up an interview.

James Packer at a news conference of the Studio City project in Macau, October 27, 2015. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

Packer’s testimony was needed in connection with the criminal investigation known as Case 1000, involving suspicions that Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, received illicit gifts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars from businessmen, possibly in exchange for advancing their interests.

The businessmen in question include Packer, chairman of Crown Limited, one of Australia’s largest entertainment and integrated resort groups, and Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan.

Police are reportedly looking into whether Netanyahu tried to help Packer gain residency in Israel and aided Milchan in a US visa request. Packer, who also bought a home next to Netanyahu in the prosperous coastal city of Caesarea, is reportedly seeking residency status for tax purposes.

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)

While leaked reports of the police investigation have indicated that Milchan spent some NIS 400,000-600,000 ($100,000-150,000) on champagne and cigars for the Netanyahus over the better part of a decade, the prime minister and his wife have reportedly told officers the sums involved were far lower, and that the gifts were unremarkable, since the Milchans were their best friends. Netanyahu has also reportedly told police the items were given willingly, making them gifts, rather than demands.

The second investigation, known as Case 2000, is focused on a suspected clandestine quid-pro-quo deal made between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher and owner Arnon “Noni” Mozes, in which the prime minister was said to have promised Mozes he would act to reduce the circulation of Yedioth’s main commercial rival, the freebie Israel Hayom, in exchange for friendlier coverage from Yedioth.

Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing in both cases.

Thursday’s report said police are divided as to what specific charges to recommend against Netanyahu in Case 2000, and are likewise split over whether they have gathered enough evidence to charge Mozes as well as the prime minister.

Publisher and owner of the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper Arnon ‘Noni’ Mozes arrives for questioning at the Lahav 433 investigation unit in Lod, January 15, 2017. (Koko/Flash90)

The apparent final stages of the police investigation arrive as lawmakers prepare to pass the so-called recommendations bill, which would bar police from recommending indictment in corruption investigations against public figures.

In its final version, the bill says that in criminal cases that have an accompanying prosecutor — namely high-profile investigations into politicians and public officials — police are barred, upon wrapping up the investigations and handing over the material to prosecutors, from commenting on whether there is an evidential basis for indictment. However, it also states that the attorney general, the state prosecution, or other prosecutors may seek police input on the evidence, should it be deemed necessary.

Protesters take part in a demonstration against government corruption and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on December 2, 2017 in Tel Aviv (AFP/Oren Ziv)

Despite vehement protests from opposition MKs as well as mass anti-corruption demonstrations sparked by the move, the bill will likely come to a final Knesset vote,which would pass it into law, on Monday.

Amid the opposition, Netanyahu said last week that the legislation was “appropriate and necessary,” but that in order to avoid the appearance that it was tailored to protect him from public fallout in his own corruption probes, it would be amended so as not to apply to him.

Before the amendment, the bill had widely been seen as an attempt by lawmakers to shield Netanyahu from public fallout should police find sufficient evidence against him to warrant criminal charges.

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