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Net appears to be closing on Netanyahu in Israeli authorities’ bribery investigation

Arnon Milchan attends the Gotham Independent Film Awards in New York on Nov. 28, 2016.
(Roy Rochlin / FilmMagic)

Israeli authorities appear to be moving closer to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an investigation in which he is suspected of bribery and breach of trust.

On Tuesday, Israeli media reported that police had questioned Los Angeles-based film producer Arnon Milchan, a close friend of Netanyahu, in the case. Milchan is suspected of providing Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, with jewelry, pink champagne and cigars in exchange for the prime minister’s assistance in extending Milchan’s U.S. permanent resident status and in facilitating his acquisition of shares in Channel 10, an Israeli television station.

Milchan, the latest prominent figure to become embroiled in a mounting number of investigations surrounding Netanyahu, was interrogated in London by officers of the elite Lahav 443 police investigations unit.

“This is a significant moment in the sense that Milchan could be tied to Netanyahu through bribery,” said Nahum Barnea, a prominent Israeli political columnist. “And if so, we’re in criminal territory. Netanyahu is suspected of doing some pretty big favors for Milchan, interceding with [then U.S. Secretary of State John F.] Kerry to extend his green card, which Kerry did, and the TV station.”

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On Monday, in news that shocked Israel, the former commander of the navy’s elite Shayetet 13 commando unit, similar to the U.S. Navy SEALs, was arrested in conjunction with another inquiry known as the Submarines Affair, and Eliezer Sandberg, a former Cabinet minister, was arrested on suspicion of bribery in the same case.

It is a convoluted case in which a growing circle of Netanyahu associates are suspected of illegally intervening in the purchase of six warships and submarines for Israel’s navy, to their personal benefit. Former deputy national security advisor Avriel Bar-Yosef and a media advisor for the science minister were questioned in the case on Monday, but were not detained.

Two of Netanyahu’s former chiefs of staff, Ari Harow and David Sharan, have been arrested in connection to the inquiries, with Harow turning state’s witness. Netanyahu’s cousin and personal attorney, David Shimron, is also a suspect.

The recent spate of arrests and interrogations follows testimony provided by Michael Ganor, the man who represented a German company selling the submarines. He turned state’s witness this summer.

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Observers in Israel believe that the police may try to turn Milchan, an Israeli citizen and thus subject to the nation’s laws, against Netanyahu, further bolstering their case against the prime minister.

“It’s a possibility,” Barnea said. “White-collar cases are never clear-cut, like murder or robbery, so in this case the nuances matter. What some may see as a personal gift from one friend to another could, in a different light, be viewed as a gift forbidden under Israeli law or even as part of a quid pro quo in an act of criminal bribery.”

Almost lost in the cascade of recent bad news for Netanyahu is the expectation that his wife is to be served with an indictment for fraud in the coming week. She is suspected of pocketing $110,000 in goods and services that were ordered for the prime minister’s official residence.

With Netanyahu’s political future in doubt, his rivals have become more brazen in positioning themselves as a successor. Yair Lapid, a popular former minister who heads the centrist Yesh Atid party, scheduled a public gathering in Jerusalem on Wednesday evening, and Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay is assembling a party convention that could grant him new powers to appoint party candidates in preparation for a possible early election.

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Tarnopolsky is a special correspondent.


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