Netanyahu's Corruption Trial Opens Sunday, but the Real Fight Will Take Place Outside the Court

The prime minister is expected to continue attacking law enforcement agencies, taking aim at the three judges who will hear his case

Gidi Weitz
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Benjamin Netanyahu during the swearing in ceremony of his new unity government, May 17, 2020.
Benjamin Netanyahu during the swearing in ceremony of his new unity government, May 17, 2020. Credit: Adina Valman/Knesset spokespersons' office/Handout via REUTERS
Gidi Weitz

Over the course of 18 months and three elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did everything he could to prevent this moment from arriving, to keep his trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust from starting.

Bibi swears in his colossal coalition and readies for a courtroom showdown

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First he sought parliamentary immunity from the Knesset. When he realized he had no majority to support that, he clung to his office, hoping that the governmental power he held would do the job.

This week, he tried to evade showing up for the reading of the charges so he wouldn’t be photographed in the dock. And even now, he undoubtedly has plans to escape justice – perhaps running for president in another 18 months, or perhaps another election that would give him a Knesset majority to abort his trial.

Meanwhile, he’s likely to wage a multi-pronged war. His lawyers will claim there are holes in the prosecution’s case and screw-ups by the police and prosecution. And he’ll continue his witch hunt against the police and prosecution, “a corrupt gang that I’ll expose one by one,” as he says in private conversations.

After he tears the masks from the faces of those who brought him to trial, he told one minister, the public’s attitude toward them will resemble attitudes toward the Catholic Church after the extent of its whitewashing of sexual abuse by priests was revealed.

Some senior Justice Ministry officials believe he’ll adopt the tactics of a mafia don. Granted, he won’t send his soldiers to plant bombs in law enforcement officials’ cars, but he’ll use his mouthpieces in the political world and the media to undermine their public image, embitter their lives and intimidate them, a man well-versed in Netanyahu’s cases said.

“In the attorney general’s view, shepherding these cases to the end is a war over the state’s character and democracy, so we won’t become Poland or Hungary,” he added.

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, the current target of Netanyahu’s war machine, recently opined that Jerusalem District Court judges Rivka Friedman-Feldman, Moshe Bar-Am and Oded Shaham would soon join the target list. “They weren’t chosen at random,” Netanyahu recently said of the judges he’ll face on Sunday

Assuming the trial proceeds normally, the prosecution will spend the coming years unveiling a complex story with many participants and plot lines. The protagonist is a corrupt politician who exploits his status to extort benefits from tycoons, and gives them to understand that he’ll make it worth their while.

A key character in this saga is Arnon Milchan, the Hollywood producer who could have made his own life story into a film. Milchan told police about the supply chain of boxes of cigars, crates of champagne and the jewelry he provided to Netanyahu and his wife Sara, about the explicit demands made via code words, and the envoys who conveyed the goods to the prime minister’s residence in sealed black bags.

“It began going up and up and up,” Milchan said of the magnitude and frequency of these deliveries. But he feared that if he stopped providing them, he’d lose his access to the king.

When he hesitated about whether to accede to Sara Netanyahu’s request for a piece of jewelry costing 10,000 shekels ($2,800), the prime minister himself called and told him there was no legal problem with it.

“I’m furious ... this man has destroyed my life,” Milchan told police officers who met with him at the Israeli Embassy in London and questioned him on suspicion of bribery. “You suddenly see that he’s lying to you, saying it’s all permissible and that he’d checked with the attorney general and friends are allowed to give gifts outside the home. And suddenly I’m in the papers and my children ... I have bodyguards. I’m deathly afraid.”

According to the prosecution, Milchan didn’t only give. Netanyahu used his own ties with senior U.S. government officials to help Milchan get an American visa. On other occasions, he met with Milchan at the prime minister’s residence or Milchan’s villa in Beit Yanai, together with government officials and senior army officers, in an effort to promote his friend’s business ventures.

When Milchan wanted Netanyahu, the prime minister would be called out of meetings, even sensitive ones. Milchan is the one who suggested Netanyahu appoint Yossi Cohen, now the Mossad director, as his national security adviser.

“The Netanyahus asked me if he was loyal,” said Milchan, who worked for years as an Israeli secret agent, referring to Netanyahu and his wife. “They knew I was with him on several operations.”

“Loyal to whom?” the investigator asked. “To Israel or the Netanyahus?”

“To the Netanyahus,” Milchan replied. “I told them ‘yes.’”

When police asked whether this was “a legitimate question,” Milchan retorted, “Does it seem legitimate to you to ask for champagne and cigars?”

Milchan met Cohen through a mutual friend, former Mossad director Meir Dagan. “I went with Dagan to King Abdullah” of Jordan, he told police. “The king leapt on him and said, ‘This man saved my life more than once.’” When Cohen was Mossad deputy chief, Milchan added, he helped him find a bank that would agree to accept $15 million in cash for an operation related to Iran. “These are state secrets,” police warned him.

Milchan introduced the Netanyahus, and later also Cohen, to another key character in the story – a moody young Australian named James Packer, then 20 years old.

“We immediately hit it off,” Netanyahu told the police. He urged his new friend to buy a lot next to his personal home in Caesarea.

Hadas Klein, a key aide to both Milchan and Packer, told police that Netanyahu pressed her repeatedly to get the lot’s purchase moving. “Klein said, ‘He called me so many times, I don’t even know why,’” police told Netanyahu.

“That’s so untrue,” Netanyahu replied. “I spoke with her once or twice. ... I showed him the lot, it was vacant.”

The admiring Packer built a villa with a pool on the lot, and Netanyahu and his family used it as if it were their own. Later, Milchan asked Packer to help cover the cost of the cigars and champagne sent to the prime minister’s residence.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu lobbied the Australian billionaire to buy hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of media outlets that could be turned into improved versions of the daily Israel Hayom, widely considered a Netanyahu mouthpiece. At Netanyahu’s request, Packer held exploratory talks with the stars of the other two cases against him – Arnon Mozes, publisher of the daily Yedioth Ahronoth, and Ilan Yeshua, CEO of the internet news site Walla.

One meeting between Mozes and Packer took place at Milchan’s private home, and Milchan played a key role in the opening episode of that case, known as Case 2000. In 2009, after Netanyahu was elected prime minister for the second time, he asked Milchan to mediate in what he termed the “world war” between Mozes, on one side, and Netanyahu and Israel Hayom owner Sheldon Adelson, a longtime Netanyahu fan, on the other.

“Bibi considered Mozes a bigger enemy than the Islamic State,” said Milchan, who often referred to Mozes by his nickname, Noni. “Maybe I’m exaggerating a little. Bibi would say of Noni, ‘Be careful, he’s bugging you.’ ... When Bibi talked about Noni [on the phone], he would call him ‘the local.’ ... That was the code.”

Milchan understood that Netanyahu was interested in a cease-fire and decided to take action. One evening, he told police, he had dinner with Adelson at a restaurant. “And then Adelson told me, ‘I’ve had it. I’m going to double circulation, put out a weekend edition, destroy [Yedioth], whatever it costs. Losing another hundred million won’t change my life.”

Milchan passed this message to Mozes, who asked him to send a reply: “Tell him I’ll stop attacking Bibi and Sara to the extent we have if he gives up on the weekend edition.”

Inside the Jerusalem District Court.Credit: Emil Salman

Milchan called Adelson’s wife Miriam, who responded, “We won’t give in to threats.” And when he told Netanyahu what Mozes had said, Netanyahu replied, “Tell Noni he’s playing with fire.”

Later, Milchan witnessed a scene that made clear to him how warped the relationship between the two couples was. At a dinner he attended, he saw Sara Netanyahu scream at the Adelsons – who, at her husband’s request, had invested hundreds of millions of dollars in a free newspaper that treated him as a god. “You have blood on your hands, you’re spilling my blood,” Sara Netanyahu told the Adelsons.

“Adelson admired Netanyahu until the tapes were discovered,” Milchan said, referring to recordings of Netanyahu’s talks with Mozes about a deal under which Yedioth would give the prime minister more favorable coverage if Netanyahu took steps to curb Israel Hayom, its main rival. That never-consummated deal is the heart of Case 2000.

Adelson made his billions from casinos, and Milchan was critical of his venture into journalism. “What did Sheldon know about journalism?” he said. “So he’s rich; that doesn’t solve the problem. A man who doesn’t understand the business is throwing away money just to help his friend. You’re talking about bribery? That’s bribery. Sorry, I retract that accusation.”

On the eve of the 2015 election, Netanyahu complained to Adelson that if he didn’t also buy Yedioth, “I’ll lose the election.” Adelson didn’t know that at the same time, Netanyahu was holding secret meetings with Mozes about the above-mentioned bribery deal.

Netanyahu promised to promote legislation that would destroy Israel Hayom, thereby restoring Yedioth’s primacy. In exchange, Mozes promised to use his media powerhouse for Netanyahu’s benefit.

Netanyahu kept even close associates in the dark about those talks, as he did at other key moments in the plot. Mozes, who entered appointments in his datebook in pencil and refused to use his office computer for fear that it was wiretapped, likewise told nobody about his meetings with Netanyahu.

“Neither of them has any friends,” Milchan said, highlighting the similarity between the two bitter rivals.

When the deal with Mozes collapsed, Netanyahu went into high gear with another self-interested relationship that he had started forging even earlier – with Shaul Elovitch, whose Bezeq telecommunications company owns Walla. According to the prosecution, Netanyahu wanted to turn the popular news site into an online version of Israel Hayom as a counterweight to Mozes’ Ynet news site.

“We’ll compete with Noni through Walla,” Milchan said in describing the prime minister’s thinking.

The Jerusalem District Court on Salah ad-Din Street, East Jerusalem, where Benjamin Netanyahu's trial will be heldCredit: Emil Salman

Elovitch regarded Mozes with a mixture of jealousy and fear. Yeshua, the Walla CEO, told police that his boss wanted to emulate Mozes and build “an editorial board that operates exactly how you want it to.”

When items critical of the Netanyahus occasionally made their way onto Walla, Elovitch and his wife, Iris, would scream at Yeshua, “You don’t know how to manage. This wouldn’t happen to Noni.”

But at the same time, Elovitch warned him not to upset the rival media outlet. “Shaul frequently asked me to remove things that offended Noni, because he feared him,” Yeshua told police. And Iris Elovitch warned him, “Never open a front” against Mozes.

Elovitch harnessed Walla to Netanyahu’s service by exerting heavy pressure on senior executives on a daily basis. The instructions handed down to them sent a clear message: We’re helping the Netanyahus so Netanyahu will help Bezeq.

The pressure peaked prior to the fateful election of 2015. “Shaul told me that Walla helped Bibi a lot in the election,” Elovitch’s son later told the police. In exchange, according to the indictment, Bezeq received huge regulatory benefits immediately after Netanyahu won.

Several key players in the affair testified that Netanyahu, who insisted on being communications minister as well, sought to help Bezeq. Elovitch vehemently denied that he gave Netanyahu anything or received anything from him.

Former Communications Ministry director general Shlomo Filber, who turned state’s evidence, said that as soon as he started work, Netanyahu ordered him to let a deal between Bezeq and the Yes satellite television company move forward, and also to moderate a planned reform of the landline market. These polices were worth millions of dollars to Elovitch.

Another friend of Netanyahu’s whom Filber was asked to help was Milchan, who was interested in buying a stake in Channel 2 television. “Filber did what Netanyahu told him,” Milchan said. “If tomorrow he told him to shine Sara’s shoes, he’d do that, too.”

Media adviser enters picture

At this point Nir Hefetz, who had a cameo role in Case 2000, enters the story. Hefetz, then the Netanyahu family’s media adviser, was the person who bombarded Walla executives with demands to tilt the site’s coverage. He has since turned state’s evidence.

Hefetz told police he was also ordered to hold secret meetings with Filber about Elovitch’s business affairs – something Netanyahu vehemently denied. According to Hefetz, these meetings usually took place near Filber’s home.

“He told me he’d be coming from home or the Prime Minister’s Office,” Filber told police while describing one of these meetings. “He wanted to hear whether the issues related to Bezeq and the Communications Ministry were progressing to Elovitch’s satisfaction.” At Hefetz’s insistence, both men put their cellphones in a bush 15 meters away.

Regarding another meeting, Filber said, “Before we finished, he told me, ‘We never talked about Shaul Elovitch.’”

The honeymoon between the Netanyahus and the Elovitches ended in late 2016, in part due to their shared suspicion that police were conducting an undercover investigation into their relationship. Netanyahu’s office told Filber to send over all material related to the Bezeq-Yes deal, while Hefetz arranged a hasty nighttime meeting with Elovitch at the latter’s home in Tel Aviv, which ended with both of them destroying their cellphones.

“Shaul explained that as long as the hardware remained, everything could be reproduced from it, so the only solution to make sure they wouldn’t see the correspondence was to get rid of the cellphones,” Hefetz told police.

After Hefetz left, Elovitch summoned Yeshua and ordered him to destroy all the evidence as well. Yeshua promised to do so, but in reality, he kept his cellphone.

A few days later, the media reported that the undercover probe the parties had been so worried about actually related to the Netanyahu-Mozes deal. Yeshua, who met the Elovitches’ son Or at a party at the time, quoted his response to the media: “I almost wept with joy when it turned out the investigation was about Noni rather than Shaul.”

A year later, senior Bezeq executives were arrested on suspicion of bribing Netanyahu. The recordings and text messages that Yeshua had saved were the most important evidence.

“I’m sitting here and my gut is churning,” Yeshua told police when confronted with the orders he received and obeyed. “I feel wretched.”

Netanyahu will give the court his own version of events, just as he gave it to the police: Milchan is a beloved friend, “really a brother,” and the late attorney Jacob Weinroth had told him it was okay to accept gifts from friends. Moreover, the value of the cigars he allegedly received has been inflated, and he paid for some of them himself with cash received from his cousin, Nathan Milikowsky, that he kept in a drawer in his study.

More generally, he told police, he has no problem “putting his hand deep in his pocket,” but he does have “a sensitive problem ... with relations within the family. ... That is super-relevant to the investigation.”

He doesn’t like champagne and didn’t know his wife had demanded and received entire crates of the stuff from Milchan, he continued. Regarding the receipts showing that Milchan spent hundreds of thousands of shekels on champagne, Netanyahu said that at Milchan’s home, “They drink champagne in huge quantities ... lakes, rafts, rivers.”

Seeking to imply that he wasn’t the only beneficiary of the tycoon’s largesse, he brought up a now-deceased former prime minister and president, saying, “When we used to go over to Shimon Peres’ home, [Peres] would say, ‘We’ll drink Arnon’s champagne.’”

According to Netanyahu, not only didn’t he do anything to help Milchan, but he actually “ruined” his business – for instance, when he sought to shut down Channel 10, an “ultra-leftist” television station in which Milchan owned a stake.

In Netanyahu’s version of events, Mozes isn’t just a publisher and businessman, but also a powerful political player “who had penetrated the cabinet and controlled the Knesset and the justice minister,” who at that time was Tzipi Livni.

“I’m saving Israel from Mozes’ clutches and you’re investigating me,” he complained to the police. And facing such a threat, Netanyahu had no choice but to play dirty.

Walla, according to Netanyahu, is a “fly-by-night” website, and a “radical leftist” one to boot. All he asked of Elovitch was that he move it toward the center, in line with the businessman’s own worldview. But the businessman was afflicted by “the frightened right’s weakness of character, which drives me crazy.”

As for Filber and Hefetz, they are both liars who sought to save their own skins from the law’s sharp teeth.

But Netanyahu evidently won’t make do with the necessary effort to challenge the prosecution’s narrative in court. Most of his energy and effort will be spent outside the courtroom, in trying to break the justice system’s back.

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