TEL AVIV — On Monday morning, three days after Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief of staff agreed to serve as state witness for those prosecuting him, the embattled Israeli prime minister tweeted an article predicting his inevitable ouster with a caption of just two words: “Won’t happen.”
Bluster, however, won’t stave off the courts. Israel’s longtime premier has been plagued by multiple corruption scandals for years, including a bombshell case that alleges he arranged Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan’s U.S. visa in exchange for tens of thousands of dollars worth of gifts.
But late last week, when Israel Police struck a deal with his trusted former aide in return for incriminating testimony and confirmed to the Israeli media that Netanyahu is suspected of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, it seemed — after months of starts, stalls and shouts from every corner of Israeli society — that a criminal indictment for the four-term leader was imminent.
Israeli media was abuzz this weekend with the knowledge that American-born Ari Harow, who served two terms as Netanyahu’s chief of staff and will now avoid jail time in exchange for his testimony, would never have been offered such a lucrative deal if he didn’t have the kind of information that could clinch a conviction against the prime minister. Almost immediately after signing Harow as a state witness, the prosecution imposed a gag order on his testimony, adding yet another dramatic twist to a labyrinth scandal that that interlocks Tel Aviv and Hollywood and includes traded cases of pink champagne, hush-hush backroom deals and bartered-for newspaper headlines among its sudsiest details.
“Ari Harow signed a state’s witness deal because he has things to share,” columnist Sima Kadmon wrote in Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronot, the newspaper at the heart of a separate Netanyahu corruption scandal. “Netanyahu can now be seen as a dead man walking.”
Gag order or not, Harow is positioned to provide insider information to prosecutors in both of the corruption cases against Netanyahu — dubbed Case 1000 and Case 2000, respectively. Case 2000 alleges that Netanyahu sought to strike a deal with the Yediot Ahronot in exchange for favorable coverage, while Case 1000 — which has New Regency Films head and prolific producer Milchan at its heart — centers around the accusation that Netanyahu made a regular habit of accepting luxurious gifts, including cases of cigars and his wife’s favorite pink champagne, in exchange for favors for influential businessmen.
Milchan, whose first decade in Hollywood overlapped with his 20 years in the murky underbelly of the Israeli intelligence services, is a multi-billionaire with more than 130 films under his belt, including “Pretty Woman,” “Fight Club” and “12 Years a Slave.” He is also accustomed to access to the inner sanctum of Israeli politics, having enjoyed close relationships with former premiers Shimon Peres and Ehud Olmert and serving as emissary between them, as well as Netanyahu, with various bold-faced names in Hollywood.
According to reports that ran on Israel’s Channel 2 news earlier this year, Milchan for years has made a habit of supplying Netanyahu with expensive cigars (Cohiba Siglo 5, Trinidad and Montecristo among them), and also plied Netanyahu’s wife Sara with $200 bottles of Dom Pérignon pink champagne. The gifts, which Netanyahu insists were nothing more than a good will offering between friends, have been coming in since before Netanyahu’s most recent stint as prime minister began eight years ago, and are estimated by Israeli police to have be worth hundreds of thousands of shekels (possibly as much as $100,000).
Channel 2 also said Milchan provided meals from private chefs, expensive custom suits, and jewelry for Sara Netanyahu.
Milchan could not be reached for comment.
Even with an all-but-assured indictment, however, the timing of Harow’s agreement means that Israelis are going to have to be patient. Israeli Police are expected to wait until after the Jewish High Holidays in late September to issue their recommendation, and it will take a number of months after that for the attorney general to formally issue the ruling. And despite the if/when question of an indictment’s language, legally Netanyahu could choose to simply ignore the call and continue on as prime minister.
Public pressure against Netanyahu, however, would make that scenario unlikely. A poll on Sunday by Israel’s Channel 10 (which, coincidentally, is co-owned by Milchan), found that a staggering 66 percent of Israelis believe Netanyahu should resign should he be indicted, and more than half already believe he is guilty.
In the meantime, the prime minister, who is fond of Donald Trump-style flourishes on social media, remains defiant. In a video posted to his Facebook page on Friday, Netanyahu looked squarely at the camera and said, “I want to tell the citizens of Israel: I do not address background noise. I will continue to serve you.”