Mossad Chief, Legal Adviser and the Peculiar Memorandum on Billionaire's Cash Gift

The investigation into a $20,000 cash gift then-Mossad Chief Yossi Cohen received from Australian billionaire James Packer for his daughter's wedding is expected to be closed by Israel's attorney general

Gidi Weitz
Gidi Weitz
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Former Mossad Chief Yossi Cohen
Former Mossad Chief Yossi CohenCredit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Gidi Weitz
Gidi Weitz

Barring any dramatic plot twists, Israel's Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara will soon shelve a preliminary investigation into former Mossad director Yossi Cohen, apparently without him being called in for questioning.

The probe was opened more than a year ago, after Haaretz reported that Cohen received $20,000 in cash from Australian billionaire James Packer on the occasion of Cohen’s daughter’s wedding. Cohen, who initially claimed the gift was much smaller, has since returned the money to Packer.

The main reason Baharav-Miara is expected to close the probe is that the Mossad’s former legal adviser told police he authorized Cohen to accept the gift. This official, who is slated to retire soon, was later given a different senior Mossad post by Cohen.

The legal adviser was questioned about this incident twice. The second time was on orders from senior prosecutors, after the initial round of questioning left police investigators with questions.

The adviser said he authorized Cohen to accept the gift at the time it was given, although he didn’t issue a written opinion. What he showed investigators was a memorandum written five years later – apparently following Haaretz’s report.

The memorandum said Cohen had asked the legal adviser for permission to accept the money from his friend. The adviser authorized it after making sure that Packer had no connection to the Mossad’s activities and the gift therefore wouldn’t create a conflict of interest for Cohen. The adviser also told investigators that Cohen had told him Packer initially offered a much larger sum – $100,000.

Surprisingly, the legal adviser never referred this explosive issue to then-Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit.

“Assuming approval was indeed granted, the legal adviser of an agency like the Mossad has to consult the attorney general on such a sensitive matter,” a source familiar with the issue said. “He can’t act like a consigliere.”

Former Mossad Chief Yossi Cohen and Benjamin Netanyahu, in 2021.Credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO

The legal adviser was appointed to his Mossad post with Mendelblit’s blessing. The attorney general is traditionally consulted on the appointments of all legal advisers to government agencies.

Packer is also listed as a prosecution witness in former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial, but he is apparently unlikely to be called to the witness stand. Unlike Arnon Milchan, the other billionaire from whom Netanyahu allegedly received illicit gifts, Packer isn’t an Israeli citizen. Consequently, the prosecution can’t force him to testify, and his testimony isn’t considered particularly valuable in any case.

Milchan is expected to seek permission to testify from overseas for personal reasons.

Packer’s romance with Israel began through Milchan, in 2013. On his visits to Israel, which became more frequent over time, Milchan introduced him to senior politicians, including then-President Shimon Peres, then-Finance Minister Yair Lapid and then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Packer subsequently bought Netanyahu and his wife cigars, champagne and jewelry worth hundreds of thousands of shekels. At their urging, he also bought a villa near the Netanyahus’ home in Caesarea.

Packer soon became acquainted with Cohen, who was the national security adviser at the time. They clicked instantly. Packer once described Netanyahu as the most impressive man he had ever met, but viewed Cohen as a close second.

In 2015, Packer made Cohen a fantastic offer – become CEO of a cyber company he and Milchan would found and receive both a third of the company’s shares and a $10 million signing bonus. Cohen initially leapt at the idea, but bowed out after Netanyahu decided to make him Mossad director.

Nevertheless, the two men remained close. In May 2016, when the wife of Australia’s prime minister visited Israel, Packer rented a suite at a luxury hotel and invited Cohen there to meet with him and the Australian guest.

At that meeting, a diplomatic source said, Packer depicted himself as a bridge between Israel and Australia, perhaps in an effort to raise his prestige in the eyes of his own country’s government and thereby promote his business interests. Cohen, the source added, cooperated with this effort.

A month later, Cohen’s daughter got married and Packer gave Cohen his generous gift.

Australian Billionaire businessman James Packer and Arnon Milchan.Credit: AFP

On March 18, 2018, at Israel’s request, the Australian federal police questioned Packer at a Melbourne hotel about his gifts to Netanyahu. The head of the Israeli investigating team, Momi Meshulam, also attended.

After being promised immunity from self-incrimination, Packer confirmed having showered the Netanyahus with gifts. But he said he didn’t buy them himself; Hadas Klein, the aide he shared with Milchan, did so.

He added that he didn’t give Klein specific orders; he trusted her judgment on anything related to Israeli culture. He described her as the sister he would have liked to have had.

When he was living next door to the Netanyahus, Packer continued, he sometimes brought them Champagne, cigars and food. He had trouble estimating the value of these gifts, but added that there was nothing unusual about them; he usually gives gifts to friends when he meets them.

Asked whether the Netanyahus had given him anything in return for these gifts, he said they gave him something even more valuable – their friendship.

Packer was especially close to the Netanyahus’ son Yair. They spent a lot of time together, he told the police, visiting nightclubs and other such places. He said he spoke with and saw Yair much more than he ever did the prime minister, primarily because Yair had much more free time than his father did.

Yair stayed in Packer’s apartment in Tel Aviv, and also once at his hotel suite in New York, the businessman told investigators. Yair also flew to Aspen in Packer’s private plane and stayed with him there in Packer’s home. Packer said he thought Yair was also on his boat in Spain.

Here, too, Packer described his generosity toward the younger Netanyahu as being no different from the way he treated other friends.

Through Yair, Packer met Roman Abramov, a young event promoter with no experience. Packer appointed Abramov as his director of business development, with a hefty salary.

Hadas Klein testified during Netanyahu’s trial that the Netanyahus had asked Packer to do this. But Packer said the appointment was his own idea, adding that he thought Abramov was brilliant.

Packer, whose business interests include a chain of casinos, said he never discussed any business issues with the senior Netanyahu, or anything related to fellow casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. He added that Milchan once discussed opening a casino in Eilat in Netanyahu’s presence, and Netanyahu told him not to talk nonsense. But Packer said he didn’t remember whether he was actually present for that conversation or whether Milchan told him about it afterward.

Nevertheless, Packer said, Netanyahu did give him one piece of business advice. He encouraged him to look into information technology, since this was a developing industry that offered many business opportunities.

Netanyahu admitted to the police that he advised Packer, who also has major media holdings in Australia, to buy the Yedioth Ahronoth publishing group, since the former prime minister deems it hostile to him. But nothing came of this.

Hadas Klein, aide to Arnon Milchan and James Packer, at the Jerusalem District Court, last month.Credit: Emil Salman

According to Packer, Netanyahu thought this would be the right thing for him to do because it resembled the situation that once existed in Australia. Packer described Yedioth to the police as a tyrannical newspaper that evidently embittered Netanyahu’s life.

Klein said during her courtroom testimony that after meeting with Yedioth’s publisher, Arnon Mozes, Packer was upset, saying the Netanyahus “had asked something of him, but he wasn’t capable of doing it.” But Packer, while describing Mozes as “Netanyahu’s nightmare,” denied that Netanyahu ever encouraged him to buy or invest in Yedioth.

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