Hollywood mogul acknowledges gifts to Netanyahu may have been 'excessive' in 2nd day of testimony

A billionaire Israeli movie mogul has taken the stand for a second day in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial

Ilan Ben Zion
Monday 26 June 2023 12:36 BST

A billionaire Hollywood mogul took the stand for a second day on Monday in Benjamin Netanyahu's corruption trial, acknowledging that the long list of champagne, cigars and jewelry he systematically gave to the Israeli prime minister may have been excessive.

Arnon Milchan, whose production credits include “Pretty Woman,” “12 Years a Slave,” and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” is a key witness in one of three cases brought against Netanyahu. Prosecutors are trying to prove that Netanyahu committed fraud and breach of trust.

Milchan, 78, has been testifying by videoconference from Brighton, England, which is near where he is based.

Prosecutors hope his testimony, which began Sunday and is expected to last some two weeks, will provide details about the abundance of gifts given to Netanyahu and his wife. The gifts, the prosecutors maintain, led to favors from Netanyahu that advanced Milchan's interests.

Netanyahu's lawyers have said Milchan's gifts were friendly gestures.

In his first day of testimony, Milchan described a friendship that included some gifts to the Netanyahus that turned into regular requests and “transformed into a routine.”

He said the routine became so frequent that he and the Netanyahus developed code words for the gifts. Cigars were known as “leaves,” champagne was known as “roses,” and luxury dress shirts were nicknamed “dwarves.”

He said he had instructed his aides to give the Netanyahus “whatever they want” and was assured by the prime minister that there was nothing illegal going on.

On Monday, Milchan said the gifts didn't affect his friendship with the Netanyahus until a police investigation was opened and at which point, he said he realized the gifts were “excessive.”

Asked whether he had ever refused a request for gifts, Milchan said: “Not that I remember."

Milchan also again stressed that he considered the Netanyahus friends, but recounted that he told police he felt uncomfortable that his gifts were not reciprocated.

According to the indictment against Netanyahu, Milchan gave Netanyahu and his wife a “supply line” of lavish gifts valued at nearly $200,000.

The indictment accuses Netanyahu of using his influential perch to assist Milchan to secure a U.S. visa extension by drawing on his diplomatic contacts, including former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Prosecutors also accuse Netanyahu of working to push legislation that would have granted Milchan millions in tax breaks.

Milchan testified Monday that he had turned to Netanyahu and others for help about the visa extension. He said Kerry called him one day and met with him at a hotel. Describing Kerry as a good friend, he said he was told Kerry could not help.

The prosecution and defense lawyers have been questioning Milchan in a hotel conference room in Brighton. While no journalists are allowed there, Netanyahu’s wife Sara, on a private visit to Britain, sat in for a second straight day.

Prosecutors have demanded that Sara Netanyahu not make eye contact with Milchan, fearing she could sway the witness.

The testimony is being aired in a Jerusalem courtroom for judges and other lawyers — who can also ask questions of Milchan — and for journalists and other attendees to watch.

Netanyahu, who has attended some of the hearings during his trial, was at the courtroom both on Sunday and Monday. Milchan, who is not charged in the case, greeted him in Hebrew over the two-way video broacdcast, using Netanyahu's nickname: “Shalom, Bibi!”

Milchan is testifying in one of three cases being brought against Netanyahu. The other two, which include charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, accuse Netanyahu of exchanging regulatory favors with powerful media moguls for more positive coverage.

Netanyahu denies wrongdoing, claiming he is the victim of a witch hunt orchestrated by a liberal media and a biased justice system.

Netanyahu's legal woes have dogged him politically, putting his fitness to rule while on trial at the center of a political crisis that sent Israelis to the polls five times in under four years.

They also have fueled accusations by critics that Netanyahu is pushing a contentious government plan to overhaul Israel’s judiciary as a way to escape the charges. Netanyahu denies those accusations.

The trial, which began in 2020 and has still not heard from Netanyahu himself, has featured more than 40 prosecution witnesses, including some of Netanyahu’s closest former confidants who turned against the premier.

Witness accounts have shed light not only on the three cases against Netanyahu but also revealed sensational details about his character and his family’s reputation for living off the largesse of taxpayers and wealthy supporters.

Milchan's aide, Hadas Klein, testified last year that the Netanyahu family “loves gifts.”

The idea of a plea bargain has repeatedly surfaced, but prosecutors for now appear determined to see the trial through, despite reports last week that the judges warned them that the more serious crime of bribery will be hard to prove.

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