JERUSALEM (AP) – A key witness in the corruption trial of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has testified that her billionaire boss ordered her to deliver gifts of champagne, cigars and expensive jewelry to the then Israeli prime minister in a scandal at the center of the country’s political crisis. country.
The expensive gifts given to the former Israeli leader by wealthy friends are the subject of one of three corruption cases against Netanyahu. He is charged with fraud, breach of trust and taking bribes, charges he has denied and dismissed as part of an attempt to remove him from office.
The Netanyahus “love gifts, and they like pink champagne and cigars for Bibi,” Hadas Klein, the longtime aide to one of the former prime minister’s friends, testified Tuesday, using the prime minister’s nickname.
The ongoing trial — already in its second year — is dealing with allegations that Netanyahu accepted gifts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars during his tenure from Hollywood film producer Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer.
Klein, Milchan’s longtime aide, told the Jerusalem court that she had been ordered to buy gifts for the prime minister and his wife so that Milchan could remain in the couple’s favor.
“You can’t come empty-handed, because if you come empty-handed, you won’t be invited anymore,” Israeli media told the court.
In additional testimony Wednesday, Klein presented cigar receipts worth about $12,000 and described demands from then Prime Minister’s wife, Sara Netanyahu, for bottles of champagne and jewelry, Israeli media reported.
During the emotional testimony, Klein also discussed the abuse she faced, telling the court that the prime minister’s wife yelled at her when she failed to give the requested gifts.
The indictment alleges Netanyahu used his position of power to advance Milchan’s interests, amounting to a conflict between his public duties and personal friendship. Netanyahu did personal favors to Milchan, including asking US officials to renew Milchan’s US residency permit and expanding Israeli regulations exempting Israeli returnees from declaring foreign income, according to the indictment.
Netanyahu refutes the allegations of wrongdoing, saying he did not act in Milchan’s personal interests and even acted against them occasionally. He says that the exchange of gifts was just friendly gestures.
In the other cases against Netanyahu, he is accused of orchestrating positive coverage in a major Israeli newspaper in exchange for promoting legislation that would have hindered the news channel’s main rival, a free pro-Netanyahu daily. The third, called Case 4000, alleges that Netanyahu promoted legislation worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the owner of Israeli telecom giant Bezeq in exchange for positive coverage on his Walla news site.
Israel is heading for its fifth election in less than four years in November. The country is embroiled in a protracted political crisis — with the past four elections ending in deadlock — largely because of widespread public division over Netanyahu’s suitability to serve while indicted.
Netanyahu was removed from office last year after eight ideologically diverse parties joined forces and formed a coalition government based largely on little more than shared apathy towards Netanyahu. The coalition collapsed last week after months of infighting and defections.
He still heads the dominant Likud party, the largest in the Israeli Knesset, as the country moves towards new parliamentary elections. The damning testimony also comes as the country’s political discourse revolves around the high cost of living, inflation and financial struggles of the middle class.
Opinion polls suggest Likud will once again be the largest party after the election. But it’s unclear whether she and her religious and nationalist allies will control the parliamentary majority needed to form a new government.