Australian Billionaire James Packer Talks to Police in Criminal Probe of Gifts to Netanyahu

Israeli police suspect Packer split cost of gifts to Netanyahu family with Israeli-American entertainment mogul Arnon Milchan in investigation dubbed Case 1000

Australian billionaire James Packer answers questions at an evening business event in Sydney, 2012.
Tim Wimborne/REUTERS

Australian billionaire James Packer gave testimony to Australian investigators on Tuesday in connection with the Israel Police investigation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, involving allegations that the Netanyahu family received gifts worth upwards of $100,000 from a number of wealthy business figures.

Israeli investigators were present at Packer’s interrogation. Israeli police suspect Packer split the cost of gifts to the prime minister and his wife, Sara, with Packer’s business partner, Israeli-American entertainment industry executive Arnon Milchan.

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In the past, Israeli Channel 10 (now Channel 14) also reported that Packer paid for the Netanyahus’ son Yair’s stay at a luxury hotel in New York during a session of the UN General Assembly. Packer also reportedly gave Sara Netanyahu 10 tickets to a concert by his former girlfriend, singer Mariah Carey.

Last winter Packer’s yacht was docked in Israel, but Israeli police investigators did not seek to question him at the time in their investigation, which they refer to as Case 1000. Packer has not visited Israel since, and police encountered difficulty obtaining his testimony, which was considered a missing piece of the probe. Major time lags between the period when investigators received information and the timing of the approval from Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and State Attorney Shai Nitzan to question Packer resulted in further delay.

Packer is considered a key figure in Case 1000. It is suspected that he acceded to Milchan’s request to share the expenses incurred in what was given to the Netanyahu family. In addition, the prime minister’s lawyer, Jacob Weinroth, reportedly asked Interior Minister Arye Dery to advance an application for residency status in Israel for Packer, who is not Jewish and thus is not entitled to automatic citizenship under Israel’s Law of Return.

Last week, Netanyahu was questioned by police fraud investigators at his official residence in Jerusalem in connection with Case 1000. At this stage, investigators are attempting to determine if Milchan’s gifts to the Netanyahu family were given in exchange for advancing Milchan’s business interests, and in return for Milchan’s request for an American residency visa after the U.S. visa that he had was rescinded. Milchan has been questioned four times in the case, most recently in London.

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Milchan recently held a series of consultations in London with his lawyer Boaz Ben Zur and with media adviser Ronen Tzur. His associates are gearing up for a police recommendation on charges in the case, which is expected in the coming weeks.

At this stage, the Israel Police do not intend to question Milchan again. Although he was questioned as a suspect rather than simply a witness with information, a source close to the investigation predicted that in the end, Milchan will not be indicted, but will serve as a key witness in the case. On the other hand, the police are continuing to question witnesses to clarify whether Milchan received anything in return for the gifts that he gave to the Netanyahu family.

Earlier this month, disclosure came of the testimony by Milchan’s personal assistant, Hadas Klein, who was responsible for dispatching bottles of champagne and cigars to the Netanyahus’ residence. Klein recounted that the purchases were made at the request of the prime minister and his wife. “Sara would ask for champagne bottles in cases of six or 12,” Klein testified. Referring to the prime minister, Klein said: “Bibi would ask for cigars and also knew about the quantities of champagne that his wife had received.”

A driver used to make trips to Jerusalem specifically to supply the cigars and champagne, said Klein, who added that she also received unusual requests, including one to have a leak fixed at the prime minister’s residence.

“I didn’t approve it,” Klein said, “and then Sara screamed that Milchan and I were humiliating her and Bibi. ... After several hours, Netanyahu himself called and said that what Milchan and Packer were doing to the Mrs. wasn’t right and that they need to understand what she was going through in the media.”

The gathering of testimony by the police in Case 1000 is nearly complete. In the near future, the police fraud unit plans to question Netanyahu one more time at his residence in Jerusalem about the case, and to confront the prime minister with Packer’s testimony. That is expected to conclude the major work in the probe.

At the same time, police may also seek to question the prime minister again in a second investigation that they are pursuing against him, dubbed Case 2000, and may possibly focus again on Case 1000 as well. In Case 2000, Netanyahu is suspected of negotiating with Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes for positive coverage in the daily in return for reining in Israel Hayom, Sheldon Adelson’s pro-Netanyahu free newspaper, which is Yedioth’s main rival.

A law enforcement source said Packer’s testimony was critical and significant in the case, but added that even if it had not been obtained, investigators have sufficient evidence to make a recommendation to prosecutors on whether there is strong enough evidence to indict of Netanyahu. Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich, who is currently in the United States, has been briefed regularly on testimony that is being gathered.

Police intend to complete their summaries and recommendations in both cases by the end of December and submit the recommendation to State Attorney Shai Nitzan and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit. This is occurring, however, as major efforts are being made in the Knesset to pass legislation that would bar the police from issuing recommendations to prosecutors in cases involving public officials, including the prime minister.

At this point it appears that the legislation will pass and come into force before the recommendations are issued in the two cases against Netanyahu. In a private meeting, a senior police officer said: “We are moving ahead at a fast pace even without the bill, but it is clear that it is accelerating the process.”