Prosecutors are considering bringing forward the testimony of Israeli-American Holywood mogul Arnon Milchan in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial after it was discovered that Netanyahu’s legal team was in contact with him and might be illegally pressuring him, Hebrew media reported Monday.
The contact came to light when Milchan apparently mistakenly called a senior police officer thinking it was Netanyahu’s lawyer Boaz Ben Tzur, who used to represent Milchan.
The reports came the same day as Netanyahu made a brief, mandatory appearance at the Jerusalem District Court for a hearing at which he formally pleaded not guilty to the three charges against him, and his lawyers then sought a postponement of the evidentiary stage of the trial until after the March 23 elections.
The prosecution has been concerned due to the fact that Ben Tzur, who represents Netanyahu in one of the cases, used to represent Milchan, who is the key witness in Case 1000. The case involves allegations of a long-term and wide-ranging illicit relationship between the prime minister and the Hollywood producer, that supposedly saw the billionaire provide Netanyahu with hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts in exchange for the premier’s aid to Milchan in various matters.
Channel 12 reported that prosecutors recently sent Ben Tzur a letter warning him not to be in contact with Milchan. Ben Tzur reportedly responded by saying that the only times they had spoken had been about unrelated issues.
But during court proceedings Monday, the prosecution presented a note from a senior officer, describing how Milchan had accidentally called him, believing he was Ben Tzur, both Channel 12 and 13 reported.
“Boaz, did you see what the prosecution is trying to do to us,” Milchan said, according to Channel 12. The officer then filed a report on the incident.
Channel 13 said the prosecution was deeply concerned that people in Netanyahu’s circle are putting serious pressure on Milchan, and so they wanted to bring his testimony forward as soon as possible.
Last year it was reported that Jewish-American billionaire Larry Ellison lobbied and convinced Milchan to give up the services of his attorney Ben Tzur in order to allow him to represent the premier.
Netanyahu, who was lacking top tier legal representation, had Ellison use his influence to convince Milchan to drop Ben Tzur and free him up to help Netanyahu, according to the Haaretz daily.
Though police recommended charging Milchan in Case 1000, prosecutors eventually decided not to do so. Netanyahu faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in the case.
The report said Milchan was concerned that allowing Ben Tzur to represent Netanyahu could hurt his image and damage him legally, but he relented after pressure from Ellison, who owns Oracle Corporation.
The report also said Milchan instructed Ben Tzur to inform Liat Ben-Ari, the top prosecutor in the graft cases involving Netanyahu, that he was now working for the prime minister, believing she would veto the move. Sources at the Justice Ministry said she took no stance either way, lacking authority to intervene in the relationship between a lawyer and client.
Netanyahu refused to comment on the report and the newspaper said neither Ellison nor Milchan responded to a request for comment.
Despite the prosecution’s desire to bring forward the testimony, it appeared likely the evidentiary stage of the trial, when Netanyahu will be expected in court three times a week, is likely to be delayed until after the March 23 election, several legal pundits predicted Monday night, hours after the premier’s second appearance in court.
According to both the Kan public broadcaster and Channel 13’s legal analysts, comments from the judges suggested that a further delay was on the way, despite the chief judge in the case saying that the court “should have heard evidence long ago.”
Netanyahu’s lawyers said the massive scale of the arguments and allegations in the case required a delay in the start of the evidentiary stage, and asked for that phase to only begin in three or four months.
The defense is also arguing that the lack of formal, written approval by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit for the opening of the probes discredits the cases against the premier.
The judges said they would consider whether to accept the request for a delay, but only after another hearing on Mandelblit’s approval of the probes.
Rivka Friedman-Feldman, the presiding judge, nonetheless noted toward the end of the hearing that the trial was lagging far behind schedule.
“This case should have started months ago. It didn’t start because of the coronavirus; we wanted to be responsible and not to gather too many people,” she told the defense lawyers. “In essence, you’re asking to defer the evidentiary stage by six months. We should have heard evidence long ago, Why are we seeking to press on, you ask? Because it’s been a year since the indictment was filed.”
Netanyahu’s trial opened last May. Though the prime minister attended the first hearing, he was granted an exemption from appearing at later, largely procedural stages of the trial.
Netanyahu faces charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in Case 4000, which involves suspicions that he granted regulatory favors benefiting Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of Bezeq telecoms, in exchange for positive coverage of the prime minister and his family from the Bezeq-owned Walla news site. The Elovitches also face bribery charges in the case.
Netanyahu also faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in Case 1000 and in Case 2000. The former involves suspicions Netanyahu illicitly accepted some $200,000 in gifts such as cigars and champagne from two billionaires — Hollywood-based Israeli movie mogul Arnon Milchan and Australian magnate James Packer.
In Case 2000, Netanyahu is accused of attempting to reach a quid pro quo with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes for positive media coverage in exchange for legislation weakening rival newspaper Israel Hayom. Mozes was charged with bribery in the case.
Netanyahu, who is the first Israeli premier to be indicted while in office, denies any wrongdoing and has railed against the courts, prosecution, and media for what he terms a “witch hunt.” He alleges the state prosecution, police, media and opposition are framing him in an attempted political coup.