Analysis

Netanyahu Investigation: PM's Flawed Story About 'Gifts' From 'Friends' Could Spell His Doom

The prime minister claims he and Milchan are friends, but based on all the leaks from the investigation, it seems his defense is indeed in danger.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara, December 2016.
Rami Shllush

“To: The investigation team.

“Re: Conversation with Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu.

“1. At the end of his interrogation, I told him that even if it goes without saying, I’m informing him that he’s obviously forbidden to contact or talk with people involved in the investigation.

“2. Mr. Netanyahu informed me that this is completely clear and it was unnecessary to tell him.”

The above was written by Brig. Gen. Miri Golan, then head of the police’s fraud squad, in a memo summarizing her first interrogation of Netanyahu in the Amedi case in September 1999. Golan and Netanyahu both agreed the warning was unnecessary, but just in case, it was given and documented.

Seventeen years later, and now well-versed in the rules of investigations, Netanyahu surely needs no warning against coordinating his story with other suspects. Yet his speech in the Knesset was like a conversation with millions of people simultaneously. What can you do if among them were other suspects or witnesses in the case, including Arnon Milchan?

Arnon Milchan and Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem in 2005.
David Silverman/Getty Images

The key words in Netanyahu’s version of events are “gifts” and “friends.” He and Milchan have been pals for two decades, a friendship expressed, among other ways, in gifts. What’s illegal about that?

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This creative interpretation of the facts requires redefining both key terms. Hitherto, a present was considered something one person gave another of his own free will. But if a calf insists on suckling even when the cow has had enough, that isn’t giving; it’s taking. Perhaps it’s distributive justice, if one is rich and the other poor, but is it really friendship?

Moreover, even if Bibi, Arnon and their wives really were friends, can one argue that the size of the gifts doesn’t matter? That some people give small gifts, others give big ones, and either way, it’s unfriendly to refuse?

Both issues are in the eye of the beholder. And in this case, the beholders are Coresh Barnoor, head of the fraud squad; Meni Yitzhaki, head of the police’s investigations department; prosecutors and the attorney general.

But even before they sit in judgment on the material, it’s important that Milchan’s story match Netanyahu’s, since Milchan is the most prominent figure in the case, though not the only one. If it doesn’t match, Bibi’s entire defense collapses.

And based on all the leaks from the investigation, it seems his defense is indeed in danger. This time, in contrast to the cigars, the drinks, the jewelry and the meals, Milchan isn’t providing the goods. He has a different take on both the gifts and the friendship, even though he would seemingly benefit by claiming to be Netanyahu’s friend. Otherwise, he could be charged with giving Netanyahu cigars and champagne in exchange for his intervention with the U.S. secretary of state to help Milchan get a U.S. visa.

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In the Knesset, Netanyahu termed himself the victim of a witch hunt, thereby recycling an old claim from the Amedi case, in which he and his wife were suspected, among other things, of stealing gifts received in their official capacity. Gifts given to public officials in their official capacity belong to the state. That’s why Netanyahu is now trying to prove that Milchan’s gifts had no connection to his roles as Knesset member, minister, opposition leader or prime minister.

PM Benjamin Netanyahu, wife Sara, and son Yair with actress Kate Hudson and producer Arnon Milchan in 2014.
Avi Ohayon/GPO

In 2001, following the Amedi affair, the Knesset State Control Committee discussed a state comptroller’s report on “gifts to elected officials and civil servants.” The report said that during his term as prime minister (1996-99), Netanyahu received more than 1,000 gifts, of which more than 100 were missing. To this day, they still haven’t been found.

Then-MK Yaakov Litzman, now the health minister, asked what constituted a “negligible” gift, one that a public official can legally keep. Justice Ministry and Civil Service Commission officials said $50 to $100.

Shmuel Tzur, then the custodian general, told the panel that overly strict adherence to this rule once caused a diplomatic incident. King Hussein of Jordan had given an inscribed pen to then-Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein, who, in obedience to the law, turned it over to the custodian general. The custodian sold it at public auction for the benefit of the state treasury. It fetched $500. King Hussein was offended.

The legal adviser to the Prime Minister’s Office in 1999 was Shlomit Barnea-Farrago, who still holds this job today, 17 years later. At the Knesset hearing in 2001, she said that responsibility for registering gifts and informing the custodian rested with the material and operational resources department. Nevertheless, she added, “Their knowledge of the gifts depends on the prime minister giving them the information,” since he often receives gifts at meetings outside the office or overseas. In those cases, the department won’t know unless he or someone on his staff informs it.

“At the minute, it’s a very personal matter, if the prime minister does transfer the gifts or not,” she added. “I’ll note that often, the prime minister isn’t alone, but with his wife, and it’s necessary to increase awareness at this level in particular.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016. (Abir Sultan, Pool via AP)
ABIR SULTAN/AP

But as the years passed, Barnea-Farrago learned to cover for Netanyahu, partly in her role as one of three officials on the committee that approves exceptional expenses at the Prime Minister’s Residence. During the Netanyahus’ dispute with the residence’s former caretaker, Meni Naftali, she proposed compensating the caretaker to the tune of 278 shekels ($73), “since the ministry doesn’t want to oppress him.” A court later awarded Naftali more than 600 times that generous offer – 170,000 shekels.

Nevertheless, Barnea-Farrago ultimately contributed to the chain of events that led to the investigation of Netanyahu’s talks with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes. She reported that Ari Harow, Netanyahu’s chief of staff, appeared to have violated his conflict-of-interests agreement. The subsequent police investigation of Harow included examining his cellphone, which he had lent Netanyahu to record the conversations with Mozes.

Once again, the smartphone proved smarter than its users. Netanyahu, who is terrified of being bugged, doesn’t carry a cell phone of his own.

Former Netanyahu bureau chief Ari Harow.
Marc Israel Salem

When police questioned Harow about the explosive conversations, he initially had trouble remembering them, then began answering questions, then consulted a lawyer and opted to remain silent. Now, he isn’t answering his phone. So we can’t answer the riddle of whether the recording was meant for Sara Netanyahu, who didn’t attend the meetings with Mozes.

While two prosecutors are overseeing the probe of Netanyahu, another is working at a snail’s pace on deciding whether to prosecute his wife over excessive spending at the Prime Minister’s Residence. The police recommended indicting her and others months ago; the case has shuttled back and forth between the prosecution and the police and the excuses have run out. Once again, the prosecution is showing weakness when it comes to the Netanyahus.

The case against Sara is the joker in the deck of cases against her husband. If the attorney general seeks a family-wide plea bargain, the indictment against Sara could be a card to play against the king and queen who demanded gifts as well as their royal game against the press.

To see where the investigation is headed, it’s worth listening to Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich, who has been hinting with all the delicacy of a police baton. Despite his promises to the contrary, it seems he still hasn’t given up his dream of being appointed head of the Shin Bet security service by the next prime minister. The police under his leadership have few accomplishments to show in any other realm, but corruption probes, which are loathed by the politicians who appointed him, have suddenly become the pride of the police brass. Like many others, Alsheich is impatient awaiting the new sheikh.

Sara Netanyahu in Jerusalem, November 2, 2016.
Olivier Fitoussi