Will new charges come against Netanyahu for witness tampering?
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, wearing a face mask, looks on while standing inside the court room as his corruption trial opens at the Jerusalem District Court May 24, 2020.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
Prosecution noncommittal on opening a new probe.
The state prosecution was noncommittal on Tuesday about whether it might open a new probe against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for witness tampering following revelations he made in a TV interview Monday night on Channel 12.
In the interview, Netanyahu admitted to having spoken to Arnon Milchan, one of a series of potential key witnesses against him in his impending public corruption trial, despite the potential conflict of interest that such a conversation could raise.
Rather than confirming or denying any intent to take legal action against Netanyahu, a representative said the prosecution “was not making any statements about the issue at this time.”
No reason was given for declining to comment by the prosecution, leaving open the question of whether it would subsequently overlook the issue or use it against the prime minister at a later time.
There are several approaches that the prosecution could take. The prosecution may stay mum on the issue for a short period, after which it could decide: 1) whether to pursue the issue and investigate further; 2) whether it was putting it aside to focus on the trial; or 3) whether it might hold the issue as something to use as potential leverage against the prime minister at a much later stage of the proceedings.
When former prime minister Ehud Olmert was accused of witness tampering with his former top aide, Shula Zaken, it came at a significant delay after the allegations were made public and at the tail end of the case as part of a deal once the broader verdict against him had been reached.
Regarding Milchan, Netanyahu told Channel 12: “One time, I wished him the best… Speaking is allowed. What did we talk about? I said to him happy holidays, once or twice, I don’t remember.”
When Netanyahu was pressed that speaking to Milchan with the trial pending could be construed as sending him a subtle message requesting his cooperation, even if they did not specifically discuss the case, he was dismissive.
He taunted the prosecution, asking rhetorically if they would now try to bring him down about a harmless holiday call with Milchan, since all of their other cases “were falling apart.”
Netanyahu’s admission comes less than two weeks after the prosecution warned his lawyer, Boaz Ben Tzur, on February 4 that Ben Tzur’s conversations with Milchan could lead to disciplinary measures for witness tampering.
According to Deputy State Attorney Liat Ben-Ari, a letter she sent to Ben Tzur framed the question as whether Ben Tzur had improper contact with witnesses for the state prosecution. Ben Tzur in turn sent a letter accusing the prosecution of the same.
Prior to joining Netanyahu’s legal team in fall 2020, Ben Tzur had served as a lawyer for two key prosecution witnesses in Case 1000, in which Netanyahu is accused of receiving illegal gifts. The two witnesses are billionaire tycoon Milchan and Milchan’s assistant, Hadas Klein.
Milchan is at the center of Case 1000 as the main purveyor of gifts to Netanyahu, as well as making various requests of the prime minister, which the prosecution jumped on as presenting conflicts of interest, fraud and breach of public trust.
Some of Milchan’s statements have been damaging to Netanyahu’s case. Klein has provided damaging evidence that directly undermines the prime minister’s defense that the expensive cigars and other items were given as gifts.
Many legal scholars considered that Ben Tzur’s prior representation of Milchan and Klein would be sufficient to preclude him from switching sides to take on defending Netanyahu. However, Ben Tzur committed that he would only represent Netanyahu regarding Case 4000, the Bezeq-Walla Affair; and aspects of Case 2000, the Yediot Aharonot-Israel Hayom Affair, which pertain to neither Milchan nor Klein.
Further, the defense of Case 1000 would be handled by lawyer Amit Hadad. Accordingly, the prosecution did not object to Ben Tzur being involved.
Yet, the prosecution’s February 4 letter accused Ben Tzur of contacting both Milchan and Klein and even suggesting to them that they make contact with Netanyahu. Moreover, the prosecution threatened Ben Tzur that such conduct could lead to him being disciplined for violating conflict-of-interest principles.
In addition, Milchan and Klein were interviewed by the police regarding their conversations with Ben Tzur. Ben Tzur responded that the prosecution was improperly trying to undermine his ability to represent Netanyahu and generally intimidate the defense.
He admitted contacting only Milchan, not Klein, and said any contact he had with Milchan did not relate to the cases facing Netanyahu.
It was unclear whether Netanyahu or Ben Tzur spoke to Milchan first and whether the combination of both of them speaking to him would raise greater suspicion about tampering.
Rather than confirming or denying any intent to take legal actions against Netanyahu, a representative said the prosecution “was not making any statements about the issue at this time.”