Analysis

Netanyahu's Elaborate Defense Leaves Key Question Unanswered: Why Did He Take the Cigars?

Haaretz report reveals how Mossad enlisted Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, embroiled in one the prime minister's cases. What we're left with is either an ill-founded line of defense or a dangerous heritage of corruption

File photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu draws his cigar during a press luncheon at the Foreign Correspondents' Club in Tokyo, August 26, 1997.
Itsuo Inouye/AP

In his report on Operation Singer, Chaim Levinson reveals Prime Minister Netanyahu’s line of defense in the case of the gifts he got from Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, also known as Case 1000. The article describes how the Mossad enlisted Milchan to help forge a relationship with a Russian oligarch who was close to both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Libyan dictator Muammar Gadhafi, by helping the oligarch’s daughter develop a music career in the United States.

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This essentially added some color to what is already known following the “Uvda” television broadcast in 2013 (mentioned in the story) about how Milchan performed various missions for Israel in service of its intelligence community. What does all this have to do with the suspicions against Netanyahu? Levinson notes that Milchan’s willingness to help Israel “could be decisive in Case 1000: Did Netanyahu ask the U.S. secretary of state at the time, John Kerry, to extend Milchan’s American visa by virtue of Milchan’s contribution to Israel’s interests, or, heaven forbid, was it a payback for cigars and bottles of champagne that the prime minister received on a regular basis from Milchan?”

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Firstly, that Netanyahu could have seen a national interest in helping Milchan doesn’t negate the possibility of a personal motive.

Second, even if the argument regarding the national interest is accepted, this does not exempt Netanyahu from a suspicion of bribery. It is necessary to reiterate what interested parties would prefer to forget: The offense of taking bribes is not conditional on the person accepting the bribe giving or intending to give something in return. It is enough that the person receiving the benefit could have thought that the giver expected something in return, whether it be something specific or merely a degree of favoritism. So how do we determine what a person was thinking? By using common sense and life experience.

Third, the Haaretz report reveals an even more serious aspect of the prime minister’s behavior – that he chose to receive cigar supplies from Milchan when the latter was occasionally conducting secret missions for Israel’s intelligence agencies. Although Milchan is not the typical agent (one who receives no material compensation) that the state uses for intelligence purposes, the principles and rules applying to such an agent apply to him. If the head of the Mossad had been “running” Milchan while receiving benefits from him, he would have had to be dismissed. A person who operates an agent or a source must maintain complete independence from him, so that he can manage him in a purely businesslike fashion, lest the agent deviate from the rules set for his actions, as happened, for example, in the case of Nahum Manbar. As is known, bribes blind the clever and sway the wise. Even worse, they create this distortion without the recipient necessarily being aware of their effect, and without his being able to neutralize it, since it distorts his perception of reality.

The prime minister is the one to whom the Mossad head reports. Therefore, these rules also apply to the prime minister, and he should not have accepted, let alone requested, any favors from Milchan, if only for this reason. As the Mossad head’s commander, he must serve as a positive example, not a negative one. He is not allowed to do things that would require him to dismiss his subordinate if the latter behaved similarly.

The attempt to distinguish between Milchan, who was giving gifts as a friend – according to one argument – and Milchan who was getting help from the prime minister because he was an agent, is distorted. It is – not for the first time – the undermining of minimal behavioral norms by the prime minister. Beyond the issue of bribery, there was, on the face of it, a serious breach of trust here.

During questioning Netanyahu cited his move to obtain a visa for Uzi Arad after the latter had been denied one. This is a common response of his – to push everyone around him into the mud by making baseless comparisons. Arad did not give the prime minister any gifts, so what the prime minister did for him is irrelevant to the Milchan affair.

If this is the prime minister’s defense – a defense that is supposed to turn the existing something into nothing – he and his supporters have reason to worry. If Netanyahu and those who follow him blindly succeed in undermining a norm that was not easy to instill – that public servants cannot receive gifts unless their value is negligible – Israel will shoot up on the international corruption index.

Maj.-Gen. (res.) Ami Ayalon is a former head of the Shin Bet security service.