Meet Netanyahu's New Friend: A Gambling Mogul and Mariah Carey's Dreamlover

Gambling, blows, Channel 10 and high notes: Meet the prime minister's new billionaire friend.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara together with Mariah Carey in Jerusalem.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara together with Mariah Carey in Jerusalem.Credit: Courtesy

In March 2014, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posted on his Facebook page pictures from a party held in his honor in the home of his close friend, movie producer Arnon Milchan, in Malibu, California. A number of very well-known Hollywood stars attended. Netanyahu posted pictures of himself and his family with Keanu Reeves, Barbra Streisand, Leonardo DiCaprio and many others. But one central figure at the party did not appear in any of the pictures: Australian billionaire, media and gambling mogul James Packer, who hosted the party along with Milchan.

In his private life, Packer has been linked to a large number of female models and celebrities, including actress Miranda Kerr and model Erica Baxter, the latter of whom he was married to. He recently began going out with American singer Mariah Carey, and the two of them arrived in Israel over this past weekend, prompting tabloid speculation.

James Packer, left, sits next to movie producer Arnon Milchan and listens to Benjamin Netanyahu address a joint meeting of Congress, March 3, 2015.Credit: AFP

Following the event in Malibu last year, the media, which showed quite a lot of interest in the flashy celebrities who came to the party – and the anger of neighborhood residents over the enormous traffic jams caused by Netanyahu’s attendance – failed to mention Packer’s presence. But an email sent by Milchan to the former chairwoman of Sony, Amy Pascal, which was exposed as a result of the huge attack by hackers on Sony’s computer system (attributed to North Korea), revealed that Milchan invited Pascal to participate in a private dinner he gave at his home for Netanyahu – with Packer.

A year has passed since that dinner, and it seems that Netanyahu and Packer have been drawing even closer. In March 2015, Packer revealed in an interview with the Australian Daily Telegraph that he had bought a house near Netanyahu’s home in Caesarea, and the two had become friends and had dined together a number of times. “Spending time with Arnon and Prime Minister Netanyahu has been an amazing eye-opener for me and it reinforces how lucky we all are in Australia,” he told the paper.

Milchan, who was behind such blockbuster films as Pretty Woman and two recent films that won Oscars – 12 Years a Slave and Birdman – is responsible, say media reports, for bringing Packer and Netanyahu together.

Packer and billionaire Rupert Murdoch, the owner of the News Corporation, which owns Fox television, are Milchan’s partners in New Regency Enterprises, which controls Israel’s Channel 10, in partnership with Ron Lauder. As part of the deal being closed in coming days for the sale of Channel 10 to RGE Media, Lauder is supposed to sell off all his holdings in Channel 10 and Milchan will remain with a 12 percent share of the broadcaster.

Netanyahu’s bureau declined to comment on the reports.

‘Developing a deep love for Israel’

Packer’s connection to Israel has appeared regularly, and at a growing pace, in recent years in the global media. In August 2014, it was reported that Packer intended to return to Las Vegas and build a hotel and casino on the land that Yitzhak Tshuva and Nochi Dankner has bought for that same purpose – an ambitious project that was called off as a result of the global economic crisis and caused major financial damage to the publicly traded companies Dankner and Tshuva controlled, with about $600 million in losses.

But the motive behind the sudden interest Packer has shown in Israel is still not clear. The Jewish Business News newspaper wrote that Packer is looking for business opportunities in the Israeli high-tech sector, though there have been no reports of any investments in Israel by him so far.

The Business Review section of the newspaper The Australian wrote: “Despite the close relationship [with Netanyahu], Packer did not provide any political donations during the recent Israeli elections. He has also not converted to Judaism, and it’s not clear whether his interest in the country is purely business or whether an element of spirituality is driving it.”

“What is clear is that Packer has developed a deep affection for Israel, both the people and the place,” wrote Sharri Markson in The Australian.

A report that Packer was converting to Judaism on an Australian gossip site was vehemently denied by Packer’s spokespeople. In 2002, Packer was drawn to the Church of Scientology as a result of his friendship with actor Tom Cruise, and he participated in a number of the group’s courses.

The Australian also wrote that there is “a suggestion that Packer has obtained an Israeli passport or at the very least citizenship or residency, to enable him to spend more time in the country doing business. Packer declined to respond to questions.”

Adelson and Packer want to invest in Japan

Gambling mogul Sheldon Adelson was not the only one invited by Netanyahu to hear his speech to the U.S. Congress on Iran in March. In the second row of Netanyahu’s entourage sat Packer, next to Milchan. After the speech Packer was caught by a sharp-eyed photographer giving Sara Netanyahu a kiss.

“It was an honor to have been invited today to hear such a truly historic speech – he has the hardest job in the world,’’ Packer told the Daily Telegraph at the time.

Like Adelson, who last year it was reported was interested in investing $10 billion in Japan if the country would allow him to open casinos there, Packer is also planning on investing in the gambling business there. He is making particular efforts to open casinos in the country prior to the 2020 Olympic Games in Japan. His partners are reportedly planning on investing $5 billion if a gambling law is passed by the Japanese parliament. Both Adelson and Packer visited Japan last year, where they met with government officials in an attempt to lobby on behalf of legislation that would permit casino gambling in the country.

Packer, 47, is the son of the late media magnate Kerry Packer, who until his death in 2005 was the wealthiest and most influential businessman in Australia. His son inherited a media empire that included the Nine television network and the media and publishing company CMH. At the beginning of this year, James Packer’s fortune was estimated at $4.7 billion by Forbes Asia magazine, which would make him the fourth richest person in Australia. His wealth actually declined in recent years by $2.2 billion due to financial losses in the U.S. as a result of the financial crisis there.

In the early years of the current millennium, Packer was among the first Australians who saw the business potential of the Internet after the dot-com bubble burst. He purchased large stakes in online advertising sites such as SEEK and Carsales, but since his father’s death, Packer has steered clear of the family’s media business and begun to develop a global gambling business.

In 2007, he set up Crown Resorts, using the gambling and gaming assets that his family owned. Since then, he has turned the company into a casino and hotel powerhouse, with locations in Australia, Macao, London and Sri Lanka. In 2008, he attempted to enter the Las Vegas gambling market with an investment of more than half a billion dollars in several businesses in the city, but the investment came to naught when a number of the firms went bankrupt following the financial crisis.

Packer has been divorced twice and has three children. He lives most of the year in a home in the Bondi Beach area of Sydney. Last year, he got drawn into a violent incident near his home, which caused him considerable embarrassment and generated a slew of headlines in the gossip columns and business press in Australia: He was involved in a brawl with a childhood friend, David Gyngell, the CEO of Nine television, which Packer owned until he sold it in 2008. A video clip of the fight went viral. The two, who were only separated by bodyguards, were fined $500 Australian for their conduct.

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