New Intel Reinforces Suspicions Netanyahu Acted on Behalf of Tycoon Who Gave Him Gifts

New details show legal officials slow to move against prime minister | Netanyahu expected to be questioned again on new information | Precedent might bode ill for Netanyahu

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the memorial plaque unveiling ceremony during a trilateral heads of state meeting between Cyprus, Greece, and Israel in Thessaloniki, Greece June 15, 2017.
ALEXANDROS AVRAMIDIS/REUTERS

The Israel Police have information that could corroborate allegations that Benjamin Netanyahu received favors from a businessman who has been implicated in a corruption investigation against the prime minister, Haaretz has learned.

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Police detectives obtained the new intelligence over two months ago, but the State Prosecutor’s Office held up its further investigation for several weeks. Sources close to the investigation say the new information will be examined in full soon and the parties involved will be summoned to give statements.

The attorney general and the prosecution have been moving at a snail’s pace in the cases involving Netanyahu. It has been 15 months since police seized the iPhone of Netanyahu’s former chief of staff, Ari Harow, containing recordings of conversations between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes. They allegedly were negotiating a deal under which the newspaper would give positive coverage of the prime minister in exchange for Netanyahu’s promoting legislation that would weaken Yedioth’s main competitor, the free daily Israel Hayom.

Ten months have passed since the police received information that raised deep suspicions that Israeli-American businessmen Arnon Milchan sponsored the puppet master and his family. Even now, despite the long time that has elapsed since the alleged incidents came to light, it’s anyone’s guess when the investigation will end.

From upper right, clockwise: Netanyahu; Milchan; Packer; Mozes
Olivieh Fitoussi, Moti Kimchi, AP, Bloomberg

Netanyahu is expected to be questioned again on the new information and additional suspicions. The Justice Ministry would not comment on this development.

The prime minister continues to deny any criminal activity, and has also said there was nothing wrong with receiving presents from friends.

The investigation slowed to a crawl in the spring of 2016, when the Netanyahu-Mozes recordings were discovered.

>> Bibi’s baggage: A guide to the criminal investigations casting a shadow on Netanyahu <<

For months, until this January, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan hesitated to launch a criminal investigation against Netanyahu, despite recordings of his talks with Mozes.

Mendelblit and Nitzan implied that there was no concrete suspicions against the prime minister.

In July, Mendelblit announced he was opening an examination “in the wake of information that was received on matters that involve the prime minister, among others.” It came in the wake of information provided to the police by two intelligence sources.

When asked why the police were going to conduct an “examination” rather than a criminal investigation, Mendelblit said the evidence did not warrant such a step. Caution with regard to information from intelligence sources could be justified, but it’s hard to understand how this pertained to the Netanyahu-Mozes case.

A Supreme Court ruling from March 2016 may have given the attorney general and the state prosecutor the tailwind that they needed to support opening a criminal investigation.

A few weeks ago, a jurist suggested “paying attention to the similarity between Case 2000” — the Netanyahu-Mozes investigation — and the Gapso affair." The Supreme Court upheld the corruption conviction of former Upper Nazareth Mayor Shimon Gapso last March.

The justices ruled that the deal Gapso tried to cook up — demanding the resignation of a city council member in order to prevent his ex-wife from being fired from her job at the municipal country club — constituted bribery. Gapso’s talks with the councillor, like the Netanyahu-Mozes negotiations, were recorded. Due to his involvement in the deal — which, like Case 2000, was never carried out — Gapso was sentenced to six months in prison (of which he served three). In both these cases the suspected elected official conveyed a readiness to carry out the dark deal, but also said things — in what a legal source called “talking to the microphone” — intended to cancel out the wrongdoing.

James Packer and Arnon Milchan.
Ace, Bloomberg

Like Gapso, Netanyahu displayed enthusiasm in some parts of the conversation with Mozes, while in others he pretended there was no link between pushing the law that would harm Israel Hayom and receiving Mozes’ generous gestures. In Gapso’s case the judges weren’t impressed by this display. The verdict rejected Gapso’s recorded statement that he wasn’t involved and the justices said it “cannot be accepted ... Gapso was involved to his neck in the ‘proposal’ to the complainant.”

The attorney general and prosecutor withheld taking action on the Netanyahu-Mozes recordings, causing a delay of months in the investigation. Also, Mendelblit appointed himself head of the investigation team, thus hindering a swift, effective investigation. He supervised it closely, disqualified several witnesses the police wanted to question and intervened in the questions’ wording. From time to time he expressed reservation about the investigation’s findings, while Nitzan mostly echoed his words.

In the early fall, fragments of information the police had obtained months earlier started to come together, showing that Milchan had been providing the Netanyahu couple for years favors whose accumulated value is estimated at hundreds of thousands of shekels. According to this information, at a certain stage Milchan asked a business partner, the Australian billionaire James Packer, to share the expenses of keeping the Netanyahus in cigars and champagne.

In the winter, when the raw information showed clear signs of truth, Packer’s yacht docked in Israel. But despite this, the police investigators failed to ask him for an interview. The tycoon hasn’t been back to Israel since then and the police are having difficulty in getting his testimony, which is seen as the missing piece in the puzzle. Large time gaps between receiving the information in Case 1000 — as the alleged favors provided by Milchan and Packer was dubbed — and the attorney general and prosecutor’s giving the police permission to question Packer delayed the investigation further.

At the end of November Mendelblit decided Netanyahu would be grilled under caution in Case 1000, while Mozes would be questioned as a possible suspect in Case 2000. Mendelblit was still wavering over whether to question Netanyahu about his conversation with Mozes, despite the fact that for months the investigation team had been saying that both men must be questioned as possible criminal suspects.

Thus another few weeks passed until Mozes was invited for the first time to the offices of the police fraud squad. A man who knows Mendelblit well said recently that he decided to authorize questioning Netanyahu as a possible suspect when it became clear that according to Mozes’ version, the prime minister had initiated the meetings between them.

“It’s true he hesitated until the last moment,” a Justice Ministry source said. “But with all due respect, I don’t see his predecessors easily permitting, if at all, a criminal investigation against a prime minister and the publisher of Yedioth Ahronoth. He displayed courage here.”

Even when the investigation became overt, the attorney general kept his foot on the breaks. Mendelblit prevented questioning Netanyahu and his wife, Sara Netanyahu, simultaneously, in contradiction to the position of the investigation team. He decided that Sara would not be questioned as a possible suspect and he barred the police from taking statements from individuals who were allegedly asked by the prime minister to accelerate the visa process for Milchan. These included former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro.

>> How Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan uses his Benjamins to influence Israeli politics <<

Mendelblit believed taking these two men’s testimony would be sensitive and problematic, since they served in the Obama administration, with which Netanyahu had repeatedly clashed.

In 2013 Milchan had difficulties in renewing his visa to the United States, following an interview he gave Channel 2’s investigative program “Uvda” (“Fact”), in which he spoke of his contribution to Israel’s nuclear program. The State Department issued him a visa for one year only. Here Netanyhu came into the picture, asking both Shapiro and Kerry to extend the visa to 10 years. Milchan’s visa was extended accordingly.

Mendelblit didn’t attribute much importance to the visa matter, telling Justice Ministry people that he believed Netanyahu would have acted to help Milchan even if the latter hadn’t provided him and his wife with cigars, pink Champagne or jewelry, if only for the tycoon’s past contribution to Israel’s security. It is doubtful if this argument would have cleared Netanyahu, who was in stark conflict of interests when he acted for his benefactor.

The Justice Ministry rejected the claim that the cases are proceeding at an unusually slow pace. Nitzan said recently the decisions in Netanyahu’s cases will be made in six months. Other legal sources said the delay stemmed from the need for inquiries of more people overseas.

Caution is important, but extreme caution could infringe on the equality before the law. Suffice it to compare the moderate handling of Netanyahu’s cases to the police and prosecution’s speed and aggressiveness in handling the trumped-up case of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the classified documents.