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Netanyahu's Police Probe Hindered by Australian's Testimony

Businessman who gave Netanyahu gifts gave a statement to police in Australia, deterring Israeli investigations

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Billionaire James Packer, co-chairman of Melco Crown Entertainment Ltd., attends a news conference at Melco's Studio City casino resort in Macau, China, on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2015.
Billionaire James Packer, co-chairman of Melco Crown Entertainment Ltd., attends a news conference at Melco's Studio City casino resort in Macau, China, on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2015. Credit: Justin Chin/Bloomberg

Australian businessman James Packer’s statement to Australian investigators this week carried a heavy price for Israeli law enforcement, for dragging its feet on the investigations involving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Allegations that Packer and the Israeli-American movie mogul Arnon Milchan had heaped gifts and other favors on Netanyahu and his wife Sara reached the police, State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit as early as the summer of 2016. The jet-setting Packer was in Israel for the High Holy Days that fall.

Yet despite fairly clear suspicions of inappropriate ties with Netanyahu, Israeli law enforcement played into Packer’s hands by not urgently calling him in to give a statement. Packer was able to disappear, thumb his nose at investigators, sail his yacht to South America, prepare himself thoroughly for the interview and set the terms under which he would agree to talk.

“We’re leaving no stone unturned,” Nitzan has said repeatedly when asked why the investigations involving Netanyahu are taking so long. The problem is that before he and his people can get around to turning the stones, some of the snakes underneath have already managed to flee.

This snail’s pace has made it possible for suspects to burnish their stories and trade intelligence. It has eliminated the element of surprise and created an opening for claims of delayed justice. It’s also responsible for the neck-and-neck race between the police and MKs David Bitan and David Amsalem — the former to publish their conclusions from the investigations, and the latter to pass legislation that would forbid publishing those conclusions.

As far as is known, Packer told police that he denies having given any gifts or favors whatsoever to the Netanyahus. This self-protective posture is the diametric opposite of Milchan’s testimony when he arrived at the police’s Lahav 433 unit for questioning in early December 2016. The Hollywood producer, who didn’t consult a lawyer before making his statement, gave a detailed and apparently spontaneous account of his demanding relationship with the prime minister and his wife.

Police have unequivocal evidence that Packer paid for bottles of Champagne and boxes of cigars that found their way to the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem. But questioning a well-prepared witness is never as effective as taking him by surprise.

Netanyahu’s annus horribilis was 2014. That is when the cost of the gifts he and his wife received peaked, leading Milchan to recruit Packer to help him cover the expenses. That’s also when Netanyahu conducted negotiations with newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes over the bribery deal that has become known as Case 2000. At the end of that year, Netanyahu called early elections and retained the communications portfolio for himself. And that same year, he also canceled a call for bids to supply boats to guard Israel’s offshore natural-gas fields. All those developments are connected to the investigations now under way.

In January, when Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich said the Netanyahu investigations would be completed in a few weeks, some of his colleagues looked at each other in astonishment. Granted, Alsheich’s estimate proved far too optimistic, but it also contained a smidgen of healthy logic: Both Case 1000 and Case 2000 are less complicated to investigate and easier to reach a decision on than previous corruption cases.

The head of the prosecution’s taxation and financial crimes department, Liat Ben Ari, brought the Holyland corruption case to court and is overseeing the Netanyahu probes. She surely remembers that from the moment key witness Shmuel Dechner gave his explosive testimony to the police in the Holyland case until the moment the prosecution said it would indict the suspects, only 13 months elapsed. Yet that case involved 18 suspects, whereas the Netanyahu cases so far involve only three: Netanyahu, Mozes and Milchan.

It’s already clear that Mendelblit’s decision on whether to summon Netanyahu for a pre-indictment hearing or close the cases against him will be very belated in comparison to the Holyland case.

The same unimpressive pace characterizes the inquiry/investigation which the national fraud squad is conducting into Bitan, the coalition whip. The evidence against him, which was collected several months ago, supports allegations that he received large amounts of illegal favors.

In the coming days, he’s expected to be questioned as a suspect in the case, along with other people involved. But the fact that the investigation against him coincides with Knesset deliberations on the corrupt bill he’s promoting — the bill to prevent police from publishing their recommendations in cases involving public figures — will enable him to claim he’s the victim of a well-planned campaign of revenge.

“Give us time to work; we’ll uncover the truth,” Mendelblit urged recently. This would have been a reasonable and appropriate request, if only he himself had demonstrated the necessary purposefulness and struck while the iron was hot.

For months now, both his office and the prosecution have been aware of evidence that supports allegations that the Walla news website, owned by Shaul Elovitch’s Bezeq company, served as a vehicle for favors for Netanyahu. For months, they have known which person close to the centers of power was involved in the affair. For months, they have known that many witnesses are willing to tell what they know about this prima facie relationship of quid pro quo, of governmental largess in exchange for sympathetic media coverage.

But the chronic basic instinct of several heads of the law enforcement system seems to be to keep looking over their shoulders and withdraw into hemming and hawing and hesitating every time they reach a path that leads to another investigation of the prime minister.