The Trump administration has barred Israeli law enforcement agencies from questioning former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Dan Shapiro, the former American ambassador to Israel, over allegations that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu illegally received lavish gifts from a wealthy Israeli Hollywood entertainment magnate, Arnon Milchan.
The Israeli Justice Ministry had approached American authorities requesting that it be allowed to question Kerry and Shapiro, both of whom served under former U.S. President Barack Obama, in an effort to get a fuller picture of the circumstances under which Netanyahu is suspected of helping Milchan obtain a ten-year U.S. visa, after a prior visa was revoked.
In response to a question from Haaretz over whether an effort would be made to overturn the U.S. refusal to permit the questioning of Kerry and Shapiro, a legal source replied: "There is no such possibility. It's behind us."
The denied questioning is part of the criminal investigation dubbed Case 1000, in which Netanyahu is suspected of receiving illegal favors from Milchan, in the form of quantities of champagne and cigars, and of helping Milchan to obtain a U.S. visa.
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Although the Hollywood entertainment executive has lived in the United States for many years, he does not have American citizenship. Instead Milchan obtained a visa allowing him to stay in the country, which he would renew every ten years.
In 2013, he encountered problems renewing the visa following an interview that he gave to the Channel 2 investigative show "Uvda," in which he recounted his activities in the Israeli defense establishment and assistance that he provided to Israel's nuclear program.
Following the disclosures, the U.S. State Department decided to reexamine Milchan's visa and extended it by just a year. Israeli journalist Raviv Drucker reported that Milchan approached Netanyahu on the matter and that the prime minister used his high-level contacts in Washington in an effort to have the sanctions reversed. Barak Ravid reported in Haaretz that on one occasion, Netanyahu contacted then-ambassador Shapiro in an effort to assist Milchan.
In 2014, Netanyahu met with Ambassador Shapiro at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem and urged Shapiro to help Milchan with the visa. A former senior official told Ravid that Ambassador Shapiro reported to the State Department in Washington that Netanyahu had raised the issue at his own initiative and that the prime minister was very agitated over the matter. It was also reported that during the period between the end of 2013 and the spring of 2014, the Israeli prime minister had at least three telephone conversations with Secretary of State Kerry on the subject.
On one such occasion at the end of 2013, Netanyahu's envoy Isaac Molho reportedly contacted a senior State Department official to say that the prime minister urgently needed to speak to Kerry.
Several hours later, Kerry spoke by phone with Netanyahu and discovered that the Israeli prime minister wished to talk to him not about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which the United States was seeking to advance, but about extending a visa for Milchan, the producer of a large number of films, from “Dizengoff 99” in the late 1970s to “Pretty Woman” in 1990.
A former senior official with knowledge of the circumstances said that Netanyahu was adamant in asking Kerry to intervene in the matter. The prime minister reportedly told Kerry that the situation was ridiculous, that Milchan had contributed greatly to the U.S. economy and should be given a visa.
Under questioning by law enforcement officials, Netanyahu confirmed that he provided assistance to Milchan but said that he had done it only as a result of Milchan's contribution to Israel's defense and had acted in a similar fashion in other instances in which the Americans made it difficult for others who had made a special contribution to Israel's defense to obtain a visa.
As an example, the prime minister raised the case of former national security adviser Uzi Arad, whom he said he also tried to help.
Police recommended in February to indict Netanyahu in Case 1000 for allegedly accepting a bribe from Milchan in the form of the gifts, in a purported quid pro quo arrangement.
The decision to indict the prime minister in this case as well as two others lies with Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, but it is considered doubtful that Mendelblit will decide to file charges against the prime minister in this case.
There are also two other pending criminal investigations against Netanyahu. One involves discussions between the prime minister and the publisher of the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, Arnon Mozes, over allegedly providing a more favorable regulatory environment for the newspaper in return for more positive coverage of Netanyahu by the newspaper.
Netanyahu said he had no intention of following through on the arrangement and denies any wrongdoing in the case, known as Case 2000.
In another investigation, Case 4000, the prime minister is alleged to have given regulatory concessions to Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder at the time of the telecommunications firm Bezeq, in exchange for favorable coverage on Bezeq's news website, Walla. Netanyahu denies wrongdoing in that case as well.
Haaretz discovered that just before Milchan was questioned in London as a suspect in Case 1000, Mendelblit urged that the allegations be reduced to something less serious than paying a bribe. Nevertheless, when Milchan was questioned at the Israeli embassy in London by the head of the national fraud unit of the Israel Police, Koresh Bar-Nur, he was told that he was suspected of bribing the prime minister. That decision was the source of tension between the police and the attorney general.
The decision to pursue bribery allegations was made by the head of the Lahav 433 fraud investigation unit at the time, Roni Ritman, Haaretz has learned. Ritman, who had been questioned himself in the past on suspicion of sexually harassing a female police officer, raised the prospect under interrogation of a possible connection between the investigation and the prime minister and his wife, Sara Netanyahu, over the fact that Ritman had been involved in the investigation of potential irregularities at the prime minister's residences.
Recently the prime minister approached Mendelblit through an intermediary asking that proceedings against him be delayed due to Ritman's involvement. Mendelblit rejected the request in a letter from Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber to Netanyahu's lawyer that noted "the involvement of the many officials and at the highest levels in the decision making."
A police source told Haaretz that it is not unusual for there to be disagreements between the attorney general's office and the police investigation unit. "This case wasn't particularly dramatic," the source said.