WASHINGTON – In the spring of 2014, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu contacted then-U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro in his effort to help businessman Arnon Milchan get back his 10-year visa to the United States.
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This emerged from conversations with former senior officials in the Obama administration who provided new information about the scope of Netanyahu’s intervention on Milchan’s behalf on this issue. Haaretz spoke about the matter with three former senior U.S. administration officials who were involved with the issue and asked to remain anonymous.
Milchan is the central figure in what is known as Case 1000, the police investigation of Netanyahu and his wife Sara, who are suspected of soliciting expensive cigars, champagne and jewelry from Milchan worth hundreds of thousands of shekels. The Netanyahus claim that the items were innocent gifts from Milchan, who is a close friend.
Last month Channel 10 reported that Netanyahu had spoken to former Secretary of State John Kerry at least three times about giving Milchan a 10-year visa, while Channel 2 reported that Netanyahu was questioned by police about his intervention on Milchan’s behalf.
The former senior American officials noted that Netanyahu’s involvement in the matter was broader than what was known until now, and that the premier not only lobbied Kerry to try to get Milchan a 10-year visa, but in at least one instance raised the issue with Shapiro. In the spring of 2014, Netanyahu met with Shapiro in Jerusalem and pushed him to help Milchan with the visa. A former senior U.S. official noted that Shapiro reported to the State Department that Netanyahu had made the request at his own initiative and that he was very upset about the matter.
The former officials in the Obama administration confirmed that between the end of 2013 and spring 2014 Netanyahu made at least three phone calls to Kerry about Netanyahu’s request. In one instance, Netanyahu’s special envoy Isaac Molho called a State Department official and said, “The prime minister wants to speak with Secretary Kerry urgently.” The phone call took place several hours later. Kerry learned that what the Israeli prime minister wanted to speak about was not the Israeli-Palestinian peace process that the United States was trying to promote. Netanyahu wanted to talk about Milchan’s visa.
One of the former U.S. officials said Netanyahu spoke aggressively and demanded Kerry’s intervention. “It’s ridiculous,” Netanyahu reportedly said. “Milchan has contributed a great deal to the American economy. Give him a visa.”
Although Milchan has lived and worked in the United States for many years he is not a U.S. citizen, but had a regular visa that he would renew every 10 years. In 2013 he was surprised to learn that his renewal request was being held up because of an interview he had given to the Israeli investigative television program “Uvda,” in which he had spoken of his activity on behalf of Israel’s defense establishment and the assistance he had given its nuclear program.
Following the revelations about his past, the State Department only granted Milchan a one-year visa, which infuriated him. Milchan approached Shapiro and other senior officials to protest and to ask for help in restoring his 10-year visa. One of the former American officials said that in his conversations with Shapiro and the other U.S. officials, Milchan mentioned his close relationship with Netanyahu several times.
In April 2014 Kerry yielded to Netanyahu’s entreaties and arranged for Milchan to get a new 10-year visa. The former U.S. officials said that at the time, Kerry was trying to prevent the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks from collapsing and sought ways to keep them going. Kerry believed that if he made this gesture to Netanyahu, it might help him persuade Netanyahu to take steps that would allow the talks to continue. Kerry also believed that Milchan’s close ties with Netanyahu might enable him to use the businessman to help soften the premier’s positions on various issues. The officials said Netanyahu himself contacted Kerry after the visa was issued and suggested that he keep in touch with Milchan and use him as an unofficial channel between them.
Milchan’s spokesman Ronen Tzur said, “Since the case began we are careful not to respond on the issue for understandable reasons, whether the information is correct or baseless and imaginary.”
Netanyahu’s response was, “Aren’t you sick of recycling these futile questions over and over? This is another invalid and desperate attempt to put pressure on law enforcement officials.”