Netanyahu Worries That Star Witness Milchan Will Drop Bombshell

Gidi Weitz
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wears a protective face mask as he stands inside the courtroom just before the start of a hearing in his corruption trial at Jerusalem's District Court February 8, 2021.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wears a protective face mask as he stands inside the courtroom just before the start of a hearing in his corruption trial at Jerusalem's District Court FebruaCredit: Reuters
Gidi Weitz

Under questioning from the police, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu frequently attacked the two former aides who turned state’s evidence against him, Shlomo Filber and Nir Hefetz. He termed them “those two liars” and claimed that unknown motives had pushed them to cross the line.

Another prosecution witness, Arnon Milchan, may well cause Netanyahu just as much damage as Filber and Hefetz. The Hollywood producer told police at length about how he gave gifts worth 700,000 shekels ($215,000) to Netanyahu and his wife.

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Yet even though the Milchan case worries Netanyahu more than either of the other two cases against him, his war machine isn’t targeting Milchan. Netanyahu has never once attacked him – not under police questioning and not in public appearances in which he lambasted police investigators, prosecutors and several key witnesses.

A few months ago, one of Milchan’s friends asked him how he explains Netanyahu’s hands-off approach. “He won’t attack me,” Milchan replied, “because he knows I have more bullets in the chamber.” This sentence may hint at what is to come when he and his right-hand woman, Hadas Klein, take the witness stand in Jerusalem District Court.

The full story of Netanyahu’s relationship with Milchan hasn’t yet been told. But new details might well be divulged in court, and possibly sooner than expected.

This week the lead prosecutor, Liat Ben Ari, said the prosecution is considering calling some of the key witnesses in the Milchan case earlier than planned. Though she didn’t name names, she meant Milchan and Klein, who were supposed to testify only in another few months, after the first group of witnesses in the Bezeq-Walla case.

The reason for moving up their testimony is the prosecution’s fear of Netanyahu’s potential influence over Milchan. One possible link between them is attorney Boaz Ben Zur, who previously represented Milchan and Klein but now represents Netanyahu.

Producer Arnon Milchan accepting the Film Tribute Award at the 26th Annual Gotham Independent Film Awards in New York, November 28, 2016.Credit: Evan Agostini / AP

Milchan and Netanyahu severed relations in late 2016, when Milchan gave several statements to police in which he described at length how he provided the Netanyahus with a steady supply of high-quality cigars, champagne and jewelry – “gifts that I don’t bring voluntarily, but am asked to bring,” he said.

Yet three months later, when police investigators flew to Los Angeles to question him again, they noted that Milchan was trying to soften what he had told them in Israel. When the lead investigator, Chief Superintendent Momi Meshulam, reminded Milchan that he initially said the Netanyahus’ demands repulsed him, Milchan U-turned.

“I thought about it afterward, and it didn’t repulse me, these demands,” he said. “What repulsed me was the situation I was stuck in, where I was suddenly giving evidence about something that seemed completely marginal to me.”

Later, when Milchan was questioned as a suspected bribe-giver rather than a witness, he returned to his original story, which incriminated the prime minister. Police investigators who met with him at the Israeli Embassy in London said he was “boiling” and “feels betrayed.”

“This man destroyed my life,” Milchan told them. “Suddenly, you see he’s lying to you. He says it’s all legal, that he checked with the attorney general and friends are allowed to give gifts, except for homes. And suddenly I’m in the papers, and my children ... bodyguards. I’m deathly afraid.”

Benjamin Netanyahu and Shlomo Filber.Credit: Moti Milrod / Maged Gozani

Also present in the room where Milchan delivered this emotional monologue was his then-attorney, Ben Zur. British law allows lawyers to be present during an interrogation, which is why Milchan chose London for the meeting.

Klein retained Ben Zur to represent her and Milchan after both had given their initial police statements. Since then, Milchan has paid the lawyer millions of dollars for his work. After the case against Milchan was closed, he retained Ben Zur to advise him and Klein during the trial, in which both are slated to be key witnesses. Lawyer and clients soon became close friends.

But in spring 2019, the first crack in this relationship appeared. Netanyahu, who was having trouble paying his lawyers and was changing them like socks, urgently needed another criminal defense attorney. He approached Ben Zur after someone recommended him, and the lawyer didn’t want to miss the chance to participate in a trial that would be recorded in history.

His original plan was to represent Netanyahu only in the cases in which Milchan wasn’t involved. But Milchan didn’t like the idea. He thought that for Ben Zur to represent Netanyahu in any capacity created a severe conflict of interests, and told one well-known Israeli that he feared the legal and public relations damage this would cause him.

Klein was even more adamant than her boss. Having entrusted Ben Zur with all the secrets of her relationship with the Netanyahus, she saw his new job as a betrayal.

Ben Zur tried to persuade Milchan and Klein that his work with Netanyahu could help lower the flames if, for instance, Netanyahu’s circles aimed media fire at them. People who knew both Milchan and Ben Zur tried to mediate between them as well, but to no avail.

The cold shoulder from his original clients persuaded Ben Zur to give up on representing Netanyahu and stick with them. But to Milchan, it was very important that Netanyahu not know he was the one who prevented Ben Zur from representing the prime minister.

A year passed, Netanyahu was indicted, the trial was fast approaching and the prime minister still lacked a lead defense attorney. So he approached Ben Zur again.

From left to right: Yair, Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu, with actress Kate Hudson and Arnon Milchan, Los Angeles, June 3, 2014Credit: Avi Ohayon / Government Press Office

Klein rebelled, and in an attempt to dispel her opposition, Ben Zur proposed that she choose any of four other law firms to replace him and promised to contributed $50,000 to her legal defense. He told associates he thought it was only fair to return some of the money he had been paid.

Klein was “utterly opposed and considered this fundamentally unacceptable,” according to someone whom she told about Ben Zur’s proposal. But at this point, Milchan decided to dump Ben Zur.

What made Milchan change his mind? In November Haaretz reported that Larry Ellison, the co-founder of Oracle, contacted Milchan several times to urge him to cede Ben Zur to Netanyahu.

Ellison, one of the five richest people in the world, is friends with both Netanyahu and former U.S. President Donald Trump. He is also a prosecution witness in the third case against Netanyahu, the Yedioth Ahronoth case, since Netanyahu tried to persuade him to buy the daily from publisher Arnon Mozes.

“They brought in a heavy gun against Milchan – a very well-connected man whom it isn’t pleasant to turn down,” a businessman who knows Milchan said. “I understood from Milchan that the conversation with Ellison is what tipped the scales.”

Immediately after that conversation between the two billionaires, Netanyahu’s aides told Ben Zur that they had gotten the green light. Netanyahu then called Milchan directly, after four years in which they hadn’t spoken. He thanked the businessman warmly and said he loved him.

Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, 2005. Credit: David Silverman/Getty Image

Milchan told one Israeli politician that he released Ben Zur because Ellison is “very important” to him, adding that Ellison promised he wouldn’t suffer from the move. Milchan also thought Ben Zur would continue advising him about his testimony. But the lawyer told him that at most, he could explain court procedure to him.

Nevertheless, Milchan conditioned the change of lawyers on consent from Ben Ari, the prosecutor, and told the Israeli politician that he had expected her to veto the move. He was therefore surprised when Ben Zur said she had approved it.

A Justice Ministry source said prosecutors “neither approved nor prevented the move, since they lack any authority to intervene in relations between a client and his attorney.”

It’s not inconceivable that Milchan released Ben Zur as a way of signaling to Netanyahu that he was helping him, just like in the good old days, and they were not enemies. It’s also possible that he believed he would benefit from having his former lawyer on the other side.

Either way, unlike Klein – who severed contact with Ben Zur completely once he became Netanyahu’s lawyer – Milchan and Ben Zur continued to hold trans-Atlantic conversations from time to time.

Haaretz’s report that Ellison had pushed Milchan to release Ben Zur set off alarms among law enforcement officials. They 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.

A few weeks ago, Milchan called Ben Ari. He 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.

According to a memo drafted later by Meshulam, 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.

Illustration: Larry Ellison (left), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center) and Arnon Milchan. Credit: Eran Wolkowski

“We were recently informed by Milchan and Klein that you contacted them ... and even suggested that Milchan contact the defendant,” she wrote. “Given this, we considered it proper to contact you on this issue and stress the obligation of caution you are under as a lawyer in a criminal case in which you are in contact with key prosecution witnesses, ones who were your clients in the past, speaking with them about matters that touch on the case now being heard in court, and even suggesting that a prosecution witness contact the defendant in the case.”

Meshulam’s memo was attached to the letter.

Ben Zur responded with his own blunt letter. “Your sending of this letter is an attempt to intimidate a lawyer acting on behalf (of a client), which constitutes an abuse of your powers,” he wrote.

In private conversations, Ben Zur said his chats with Milchan were friendly. He said they took place during the fall Jewish holidays, and that Milchan was the one who asked him whether it would be okay to call his former friend, the prime minister, to wish him happy holidays. Ben Zur said it would be, but warned him not to talk about the trial with Netanyahu.

At this point, there was a comic twist in the plot that reveals Milchan’s efforts to please both sides. A few days after the exchange of letters between Ben Ari and Ben Zur, Meshulam’s phone rang. It was Milchan.

“Look at this trick the prosecution and police played on us,” the witness told the investigator, who couldn’t understand what Milchan wanted from him. Milchan said he had dialed the wrong number. He had meant to call Ben Zur.

This sequence of events led the prosecution to conclude that their witness was easy to influence. Milchan, who used to help Israel’s intelligence agencies, is experienced at playing on several fields simultaneously. Despite testifying against Netanyahu, he was always careful not to cut the umbilical cord connecting him to the center of power. And this caution, which was evident from the moment he first entered the interrogation room in what became known as Case 1000, reached its peak over the last few months.

“Milchan is an important witness,” someone well-versed in the Netanyahu cases said. “But the most important and stable witness in Case 1000 is Klein.”

Netanyahu’s defense team claims the prosecution invented the drama over Ben Zur in an effort to paper over the holes the defense revealed in the Bezeq-Walla case, also known as Case 4000. That case is the only one in which Netanyahu faces bribery charges rather than the less severe charges of fraud and breach of trust.

“He’s angry at the prosecution,” a close associate of Ben Zur’s said. “It was already reported a few months ago that they planned to change the order of the witnesses, after they discovered significant problems in Case 4000. They understood this was a problematic move, and therefore they sought an excuse that would justify it.”

The prosecution vehemently rejected this claim. The letter to Ben Zur, they said, 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.

As a result of this saga, Milchan is soon expected to arrive in Israel after five years of absence. When he takes the stand, perhaps we’ll discover what bullets he still has in the barrel of his gun and who they are likely to hit.

Klein, Ben Zur and Milchan all declined to comment for this article.

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