5 U.S. Billionaires Who Are Potential Witnesses at Netanyahu’s Corruption Trial

Some superrich Jewish-American businessmen are in line to testify in a Jerusalem court at some point in the future about the Israeli prime minister, including Sheldon Adelson and Larry Ellison

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Ronald Lauder, left, Larry Ellison and Sheldon Adelson. All could be high-profile witnesses in Benjamin Netanyahu's corruption trial.
Ronald Lauder, left, Larry Ellison and Sheldon Adelson. All could be high-profile witnesses in Benjamin Netanyahu's corruption trial.Credit: Don Emmert, AFP / Justin Sullivan, Getty Images / Ronen Tivony / AFP
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

WASHINGTON — Several prominent U.S. billionaires are on the list of over 300 people who could potentially be called as witnesses at Prime Minister Benjamin’s Netanyahu’s upcoming corruption trial.

The full indictment against Netanyahu, which was made public by Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit on Monday, includes the names of every person who was either questioned by the police as part of the criminal investigation or testified about it to investigators, plus others who could be relevant to the court cases. The list of 333 names also includes dozens of police officers who were part of the probe.

Two of the corruption cases against Netanyahu, known in Israel as Case 1000 and Case 2000, are a direct result of the prime minister’s relations with billionaires residing in the United States. None of these tycoons is suspected of any wrongdoing in connection with the cases, and it is as yet unclear if they will be summoned to testify in court.

The most important name on the list is number 304: Sheldon Adelson. The casino magnate has invested hundreds of millions of dollars over the past decade in Israel Hayom, the free Israeli newspaper known for its absolute support of Netanyahu. Adelson is also a major donor to Republican politicians in the United States: He has made large donations to GOP candidates and organizations, and his support was vital for Donald Trump’s upset victory in the 2016 presidential election.

Adelson and his Israeli-born wife, Miriam, both provided testimony to the police as part of the Case 2000 investigation. Netanyahu has been indicted for fraud and breach of trust in this case, which revolves around a an alleged bribe deal that was concocted between the premier and Arnon Mozes. The Israeli media tycoon owns Yedioth Ahronoth, which is one of Israel’s oldest and most popular daily newspapers, and is Israel Hayom’s main competitor.

U.S. President Donald Trump presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Miriam Adelson during a ceremony in the White House, November 16, 2018.Credit: ALEX WONG / AFP

According to the indictment, Netanyahu negotiated a potential bribe deal at length and in detail with Mozes. As part of the negotiations, he offered to use his power as prime minister and his relationship with Sheldon Adelson to limit the business activities of Israel Hayom, in return for flattering and supportive media coverage from Yedioth ahead of at least two Israeli election cycles. His secret dealings with Mozes were completely unknown to the Adelsons, according to their testimonies.

The deal between Netanyahu and Mozes eventually fell apart and was only discovered by chance in 2014 when astonished police officers found hours of recorded dialogue between the two men on the phone of one of Netanyahu’s top aides, American-born Ari Harow.

In their testimonies, the Adelsons expressed disappointment over Netanyahu’s dealings with Mozes. Sheldon Adelson had previously expressed pride in the fact that his free newspaper significantly weakened Mozes’ dominance in the Israeli media market. The fact that Netanyahu allegedly went behind their backs and tried to strike a deal with Mozes at the expense of their newspaper will likely come up in court if either Sheldon or Miriam Adelson is asked to testify.

Yedioth Ahronoth owner Arnon Mozes after being questioned by the Israel Police in 2017.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Miriam Adelson’s testimony to the police, according to press reports in Israel, showed that despite Israel Hayom’s support for Netanyahu, the prime minister’s wife, Sara Netanyahu, often complained about the newspaper, which wasn’t sufficiently supportive for her taste. Adelson told the investigators that Sara Netanyahu “once told me that if Iran gets nuclear weapons and Israel is wiped out, I’ll be to blame because I’m not defending Bibi.”

Initially, Miriam Adelson said, Sara Netanyahu treated her and her husband nicely. But as time passed, “there were only complaints.

For instance, “Her picture was too small. They didn’t write something [when] she visited some children with cancer or something. Complaints all the time. All the time. And it started to be unpleasant. We would listen; we’d hear it and not respond.”

Eventually, Mrs. Adelson said, she and her husband got fed up and stopped visiting the Netanyahus. “From the honored prime minister, I would get screaming phone calls in the United States,” she said. And when she heard screaming, “I’d simply put the phone down” and pick it up again only when the screaming stopped — “which could be five or 10 minutes.”

Key player

Another Jewish-American billionaire on the list is Larry Ellison, co-founder of the software company Oracle. As part of his negotiations with Mozes, according to past reports in Israel, Netanyahu tried to get Ellison to either invest in Yedioth or buy the newspaper from the Mozes family. It’s not clear how much this issue will come up in the court proceedings.

Also on the potential witness list is Arnon Milchan, the Israeli billionaire who has lived in the United States for decades and produced hit movies such as “The Revenant” and “12 Years a Slave.” Milchan is a key player in Case 1000, in which Netanyahu is also suspected of fraud and breach of trust. According to the indictment, Netanyahu received gifts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars from rich businessmen, primarily Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer. In return, he allegedly tried to use his powers as prime minister to benefit Milchan in several ways, including a major tax break and help securing a 10-year U.S. visa.

Producer Arnon Milchan accepting the Film Tribute Award at the 26th Annual Gotham Independent Film Awards in New York, November 2016.Credit: Evan Agostini / AP

Unlike Mozes, who was indicted for bribery in Case 2000, Milchan has not been indicted. The attorney general’s decision to indict Netanyahu but not Milchan was not a consensus opinion inside the state prosecution team: A majority of the prosecutors reportedly argued that Case 1000 should go to court as a bribe case — similar to Case 4000, which involves Netanyahu’s alleged bribe deal with Israeli media tycoon Shaul Elovitch. This was also the professional recommendation of the police when they summed up their investigation last year.

Case 1000 is part of a broader story of decades-long relations between Netanyahu and rich overseas supporters, who showered him with various gifts. Netanyahu previously faced investigations by the Israeli police and the State Comptroller’s Office over the phenomenon, but those historical investigations never materialized into an indictment like in the Milchan and Packer case.

Several wealthy businessmen who have generated headlines over the years because of their ties to Netanyahu also appear on the witness list. One is Ronald Lauder, the New York-based billionaire and president of the World Jewish Congress. Lauder and Netanyahu were considered very close for decades — ever since Netanyahu’s time in New York as the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations in the 1980s. In recent years, however, Lauder has criticized Netanyahu’s right-wing, religious government for its policies on the Palestinian issue, as well as on religion and state affairs.

Ronald Lauder arriving at the Lincoln Center Corporate Fund Fashion Gala honoring his brother Leonard A. Lauder, in New York, November 18, 2019. Credit: Evan Agostini,AP

Another U.S. millionaire and Netanyahu supporter who could potentially be called as a witness is real estate developer Spencer Partrich, who testified to the police about Case 1000. In 2016, Partrich bought half of the Netanyahu family estate in Jerusalem from Netanyahu’s brother, Ido. And earlier this year, the recently appointed state comptroller, Matanyahu Englman, reversed the decision of a professional committee and allowed Netanyahu to take a loan of up to 2 million shekels ($575,000) from Partrich in order to fund his legal defense. That decision was strongly criticized by opposition politicians. Partrich has reportedly received the nickname “The flying taxi” inside Netanyahu’s office after funding flights for the Netanyahu family.

Last but not least, another potential witness is Nathan Milikowsky — Netanyahu’s American cousin and another of his multimillionaire supporters. Milikowsky was also Netanyahu’s partner in a business deal that generated millions of dollars in profit for the premier in 2010 and which has reportedly attracted the interest of Israeli law enforcement officials.

Apart from the millionaires and billionaires, another important Netanyahu ally on the witness list is Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador in Washington and one of the prime minister’s closest advisers. According to media reports, Dermer testified in relation to Case 1000 — mostly about Netanyahu’s attempts to help Milchan extend his U.S. visa in 2013 and 2014.

Ron Dermer, Israeli ambassador to the United States, walking through the Capitol in Washington, September 11, 2019.Credit: J. Scott Applewhite,AP

While the witness list has made headlines in Israel and around the world, it could take months before Netanyahu’s trial begins. The prime minister has refused to give up the option of trying to seek immunity from the Knesset. If Israel goes to a third election in the space of a year next spring, the Knesset will likely not be able to discuss his immunity request before April at the earliest.

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