Ex-Mossad Chief Yossi Cohen Returns Cash-gift Received From Billionaire Packer

Israeli police opened an inquiry last year after Haaretz revealed Cohen received $20,000 from Australian tycoon James Packer as a gift for his daughter's wedding while still serving as Mossad head

Gidi Weitz
Gidi Weitz
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 Former Mossad chief Yossi Cohen at a conference in Herzliya.
Former Mossad chief Yossi Cohen at a conference in Herzliya.Credit: Moti Milrod
Gidi Weitz
Gidi Weitz

Yossi Cohen, the former Mossad chief, has returned money he received from Australian billionaire James Packer while he was still a government employee, Haaretz has learned.

A year after the affair was revealed, the State Prosecutors Office has yet to decide whether to further investigate Cohen or close the case altogether.

Yossi Cohen received $20,000 in cash from Australian businessmen James Packer as a gift for his daughter's wedding in 2016, while still serving as head of the Mossad, Haaretz reported last year.

In an unusual departure from the Mossad's norm, the Prime Minister's Office issued a statement saying that Cohen reported the gift from Packer to the Mossad's legal adviser, who permitted it.

"The affair was examined taking into account all the relevant considerations in accordance with the law,” the statement said at the time.

The Justice Ministry was surprised at the decision. “If the Mossad legal adviser approved the head of the organization’s getting such a large gift, this should be examined,” a source familiar with the case told Haaretz at the time.

"If the Mossad didn’t tell the entire truth and approval was not given explicitly and in real time, that certainly is something that needs to be looked into.”

Cohen himself related to the affair in an interview with the television program “Uvda,” where he called his accepting the gift “an innocent mistake” and said he would return the money to Packer.

The affair made its way to then outgoing Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and State Prosecutor amid demands that they conduct a formal investigation. After deliberations, Mendelblit decided to add police to the picture, who then began a probe together with the economic division of the State Prosecutor's Office.

According to information obtained by Haaretz, the probe has moved forward in the past several months, including the police taking statements from the Mossad legal adviser.

The delay in decision-making in a case that has only one element to it is characteristic of the slow and inefficient management of such investigations involving public figures in recent years.

“With the affair of Cohen and Packer, officials are considering various opinions,” said a source involved in the matter. “True, it takes too much time, but the materials weren’t put away into a safe. The police are investigating it."

“There’s no doubt that law enforcement authorities have remained quiet to a degree when examining issues relating to public figures following the blitz that occurred with the indictments filed on the ‘thousands’ cases,” said, referring to the Cases 1000, 200 and 4000 against former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Packer’s romance with Israel began in 2013 via a partnership he established with Israeli-American Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan. During his visits to Israel, which became increasingly frequent over time, Milchan introduced him to senior political figures, among them former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former President Shimon Peres and then-Finance Minister Yair Lapid.

Packer donated one million dollars to the Peres Center for Innovation at the request of the late president. For the Netanyahus, he bought cigars, champagne and jewelry worth hundreds of thousands of shekels. With Netanyahu’s encouragement, Packer also bought a house next to the prime minister’s in Caesarea. The Netanyahu family had keys to the house, and they treated it as their own.

Another person who got to know Packer was Cohen, who was then head of the National Security Council and who Packer came to call “James Bond.” The two hit it off instantly.

If Packer referred to Netanyahu as the most impressive individual he had ever met, his new friend earned the title of second-most. “They had all kinds of correspondence, ‘I love you, ‘I love you’ and hearts, and dinners together,” Milchan told police investigators.

When Tamir Pardo was due to step down as Mossad chief, Packer suggested to Cohen a dream offer – to head a new cybersecurity joint venture he was forming with Milchan. In addition to getting a third of the shares in the company, Cohen was promised a $1 million signing bonus.

“James told me back then that we would have Spy No. 1,” recalled Milchan. Cohen accepted, but soon retracted it when Netanyahu named him head of the Mossad, just as Packer was flying to Israel to seal his deal with Cohen.

Despite that, Cohen and Packer remained friends. In May 2016, when the wife of the Australian prime minister visited Israel, Packer reserved her a luxury suite and asked Cohen to meet with him and his VIP guest.

According to a diplomatic source, Packer presented himself as a bridge between Israel and Australia, perhaps because he wanted to raise his profile back at home in order to advance his business interests. The source said Cohen’s meeting with Packer and the Australian prime minister’s wife was aimed at strengthening his position. A month later, when Cohen’s daughter was wed, Packer gave his generous gift.

A source who is knowledgeable on the affair said he believed, with caution, that the statements made by the Mossad legal adviser and the return of Packer’s money – which the law enforcement authorities were made aware of – make it more likely that the case will be closed. But, he said, “Nothing has been decided in the meantime.”

“The matter is being examined and no decision has yet been made," the Justice Ministry said in response.

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