Israeli PM’s Lawyer Says No Substance To Graft Allegations

Benjamin Netanyahu’s lawyer on Friday dismissed the notion that there was anything criminal in the prime minister accepting gifts of expensive cigars for years from a Hollywood producer and businessman, and said the prime minister had nothing to fear, either, from a second series of corruption allegations.

Netanyahu was questioned by police under caution on Thursday evening for five hours the second such session in four days as a corruption investigation against him gathers pace.

Among the issues reportedly discussed was his alleged acceptance of cigars worth hundreds of thousands of shekels from Israeli-American film producer Arnon Milchan, and his wife Sara’s acceptance of pink champagne worth hundreds of shekels a bottle.

Netanyahu’s attorney Yaakov Weinroth, who consulted with his client at the end of Thursday’s questioning, said “there is nothing to the allegations” as regards Milchan’s gifts. “Any reasonable person knows that there is nothing remotely criminal involved when a close friend gives his friend a gift of cigars.”

As for the second, reportedly more serious case against Netanyahu, none of whose details have been released by police, Weinroth said that he has heard Netanyahu’s answers and “I was and I remain calm… We’re not talking about money, we’re not talking about loans, we’re not talking about anything that constitutes a crime.” It will become clear to all, he added, that there is “no suspicion, no trace, of a criminal offense in all of this.”

After Thursday’s questioning, the police said their inquiries had focused on suspicions that the prime minister illegally accepted gifts from wealthy, foreign businessmen, as well as over another corruption affair which some Hebrew media reports have said is more serious.

A second, unnamed suspect had also been interrogated in recent days, police said without providing further details. Some reports indicated this second individual was Milchan.

Police said they could not provide further details on the second corruption case due to concerns about possible obstructions of justice.

They did not elaborate. Haaretz said police investigators warned Netanyahu on Thursday not to discuss the case with other suspects, because this could constitute obstruction of justice.

Netanyahu’s office made no official comment on Thursday night, but the prime minister has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. In a three-hour interview with police on Monday, Netanyahu acknowledged that he had received gifts from businessmen, but insisted they were entirely legal, Weinroth said Tuesday.

According to reports in Hebrew-language media, police are investigating suspicions that Netanyahu and his wife Sara illicitly accepted cigars worth hundreds of thousands of shekels and champagne from Milchan.

Channel 2 news reported Thursday evening that Netanyahu received the cigars from Milchan over the last 7-8 years. Sara received bottles of pink champagne worth hundreds of shekels apiece during that period, the TV report said. It specified that the cigars included Cohiba Sigla V, Trinidad and Montecristo, and said each such cigar cost some 200 shekels (about $50).

Netanyahu is known as a connoisseur of fine cigars, and Channel 2 asserted the prime minister smokes 15,000-20,000 shekels’ worth of them each month.

Some 50 people are said to have testified to date in the probe.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who is overseeing the investigation against Netanyahu, has said the prime minister is suspected of “receiving improper benefits from businessmen.” He has provided few other details.

The inquiry has led to fierce debate in Israeli political circles, with Netanyahu’s allies accusing opposition politicians and some in the media of unfairly pressuring the attorney general.

One of the businessmen has been reported as Israeli, and the other as a foreigner with interests in Israel.

Weinroth told Channel 2 news Tuesday that the two businessmen in question were old friends of the prime minister, and the gifts were “the smallest of trifles.”

Weinroth alleged that unnamed rivals of the prime minister were lodging false complaints against him, citing as evidence the closing of four other probes into alleged financial improprieties by the prime minister.

Sources close to Netanyahu have pointed out that Milchan whose films include “Fight Club” and “Pretty Woman” sits on the board of Channel 10, which the prime minister has previously tried to shutter.

Channel 10 is also partially owned by US billionaire and World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder, who has also been questioned by police in connection with the case. Lauder, whose family founded the Estee Lauder cosmetics giant, has long been seen as an ally of Netanyahu.

Netanyahu has also acknowledged receiving money from French tycoon Arnaud Mimran, who was sentenced to eight years in prison in France over a scam involving the trade of carbon emissions permits and taxes on them.

The Prime Minister’s Office said Netanyahu received $40,000 in contributions from Mimran in 2001, when he was not in office, as part of a fund for public activities, including appearances abroad to promote Israel.

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