Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison, a key witness for the prosecution in Netanyahu’s corruption trial, during his family vacation stateside this month.
Ellison and another person met with Netanyahu in a restaurant, according to a channel 13 News report on Sunday, which Netanyahu has not denied. During their vacation, Netanyahu and his family stayed on the Hawaiian island of Lanai, almost wholly owned by Ellison.
Ellison, an American Jewish businessman, is the chairman, chief technology officer, co-founder of and major shareholder in software giant Oracle. Worth an estimated $116.3 billion, according to Forbes, Ellison is one of the 10 richest people in the world and considered one of the people who changed the high-tech industry forever.
In recent years, Netanyahu tried to convince Ellison to buy the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, buy a local internet site or establish a television channel in Israel, but none of these ideas ever panned out. Ellison is expected to testify in Case 2000, which centers on Netanyahu's alleged desire to receive better coverage in Israel's second-largest newspaper, and one of Israel's leading dailies, Yedioth Ahronoth, in exchange for hurting its free rival, Israel Hayom – a desire strong enough for him to allegedly strike a deal with the paper’s publisher, Arnon Mozes.
As reported by Haaretz's Gidi Weitz last November, Ellison contacted another prosecution witness, the Israeli-born and American-based billionaire film producer Arnon Milchan, several times to urge him to cede his lawyer, Boaz Ben-Zur, so that Ben-Zur could defend the former premier in two of the three cases for bribery, fraud and breach of trust still ongoing against him. Milchan had previously rejected a number of requests to release Ben-Zur from his representation, but after Ellison approached him, he agreed.
In so-called Case 1000, the former premier is said to have received lavish gifts from two wealthy friends – Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer – in exchange for political favors such as promoting the two moguls’ business interests or obtaining visas. Milchan allegedly agreed to Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu’s demands and had purchased for them about 700,000 shekels ($208,000) worth of cigars, champagne and jewelry. Milchan was also investigated on suspicion of having bribed the prime minister, but that case against him has been closed.
Haaretz’s report last year that Ellison had pushed Milchan to release Ben Zur set off alarms among law enforcement officials. As reported by Haaretz in February, officials later received other information that led the prosecution to warn Milchan to minimize his contact with Ben Zur and avoid discussing the trial with him at all; Milchan had called the lead prosecutor, Liat Ben Ari, and told her that Ben Zur wanted to talk to him and promised to brief her on anything irregular that came up in the conversation. After speaking with Ben Zur, he called Ben Ari again to describe the conversation.
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According to the memo drafted by the police investigator, Milchan said Ben Zur told him, “You can call Bibi, but don’t talk to him about the cases. He has a warm spot in his heart for you.” With regard to the defense’s handling of the cases, Ben Zur told him, “We’re making haste slowly.”
In light of this, the prosecutors consulted Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit. Ben Ari then sent Ben Zur a blunt letter impressing upon him his obligation of caution. After pushback from Netanyahu's defense team, the prosecution said the letter was meant to end what looked like a dangerous conspiracy between the defendant’s lawyer and a prosecution witness, and also to let other witnesses know that the prosecution had their back.
Shortly after the Haaretz report came out in February, Netanyahu said that he had spoken with Milchan since the indictment against him had been filed. “Once I congratulated him,” Netanyahu said during an interview with Channel 12 News. “We’re allowed to talk. What did I talk about? I said happy holiday, I don’t remember which. Once or twice, I’ve already forgotten.”
Netanyahu denied that he had attempted to convey any sort of message to Milchan, saying, “no message, and no nothing, those are the terms of the case.”
A statement on Netanyahu’s behalf in response to Sunday's Channel 13 report said: “The crazy list of prosecution witnesses includes hundreds of people – including lawyers, Knesset members and members of his party, with whom he is in regular contact … Netanyahu is not prevented from speaking to anyone.”