Why a Hollywood Producer May Be a Witness for the Prosecution Against Israel’s Prime Minister

Oscar-winner Arnon Milchan and Aussie billionaire James Packer are central figures as charges are set to be pressed against “Bibi” Netanyahu

Arnon Milchan is famous in the U.S. as a prolific Hollywood producer whose Oscar triumphs include two consecutive Best Pictures: 12 Years A Slave (2014) and Birdman (2015).

However in his homeland of Israel, Milchan is infamous, even notorious, for his role in a political scandal, unraveling on the eve of elections (April 9), that’s threatening to derail Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s long reign, which has spanned 13 years over two terms.

The press shy Milchan is likely to be a witness for the prosecution later this year when Netanyahu finally gets a hearing on three long-simmering charges of bribery and breach of trust. This follows three-years of investigations the PM has branded “a witch hunt,” sounding uncannily like his friend Donald Trump.

Milchan is expected to testify he spent at least a portion of the $280,000 in “gifts” Netanyahu and family received over six years, including Cuban cigars, pink champagne, jewelry, and more, which prosecutors charge were bribes sought by Netanyahu for political favors.

At first, Milchan didn’t mind giving gifts, but after 2013, he began to feel burdened by the growing demands from Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, who sometimes became angry if not accommodated. So Milchan introduced Netanyahu to Australian billionaire James Packer, whom he was mentoring as a movie industry investor and visitor to Israel, who would share the cost of the clandestine deliveries.

Recently divorced, Packer had bought a $2 million home in Israel near Netanyahu’s. For a time he regularly visited the PM’s residence, even bringing then-girlfriend Mariah Carey to dinner. He later provided tickets for Mrs. Netanyahu and son to attend the diva’s Israeli concert.

Through Milchan, Packer met Netanyahu’s oldest son Yair, an aspiring actor who prosecutors claim he provided free lodging at luxury properties the casino operator controlled around the world. Subsequently, Packer’s lawyer met with an Israeli minister to discuss acquiring a residency visa while remaining an Australian citizen, as well as help on tax issues.

Packer is said to have spent approximately $63,000 on gifts for the Netanyahus between 2014 and 2016. He may also be called as a witness against Netanyahu.

james packer arnon milchan
James Packer and Arnon Milchan at the premiere of Noah in 2014

Jemal Countess/Getty Images

Milchan had a long history in Israeli politics, dating back at least to 2005 when he brought together arch political rivals Ariel Sharon and (Milchan’s friend) Shimon Peres, to create a political party that then won an election.

A political moderate, Milchan had once been at odds with Netanyahu, an arch conservative. He overcame that after Bibi reclaimed the PM post in 2009, and became his good friend.

Netanyahu has been accused of using his influence to help push Israeli legislation that would have given Milchan tax benefits; making calls to then-Secretary of State John Kerry to help Milchan extend his residency visa in the U.S.; and pushing a free-trade zone on the Jordanian border that would have boosted a Milchan deal with India. Their relationship hit a wall in 2018 when Israeli police first revealed pending charges Netanyahu.

At the time, authorities also sought charges against Milchan, who became very cooperative after that, sitting for interviews with prosecutor’s. On February 28, Israeli’s Attorney General announced plans to move forward with three criminal charges against Netanyahu. However, there would no charges against Sara or Yair—or Milchan. Packer also escaped punishment but only after being chased by Israeli authorities for a year.

In October 2016, Packer had come to visit his estate, only three days after a news leak about Milchan’s assistant talking to police about what was being dubbed “The Illicit Gifts Affair.” When Packer docked his yacht off the coast, it was reported on Israeli TV. Packer was called “a mysterious billionaire.”

“Shortly after that aired, Netanyahu called Packer’s agent and forcefully demanded that both Packer and the yacht leave Israel,” reported Haaretz.

Israeli police spent a year trying to interview Packer. He finally spoke to Australian police with an Israeli representative on hand. Packer, who then abandoned efforts to stay in Israel, said it has been over two years since he talked to Netanyahu.

Milchan is left feeling angry. The day before the Academy Awards, he told Israeli TV 12 that he felt hurt by how he has been treated by the Israeli authorities.

“I’m sad—sad that they don’t remember all I did for this country,” Milchan told Variety. “I wake up in the morning sad; I go to sleep at night sad. I feel wounded….Maybe they’ll see the damage they’ve done to me.”

Later this year, we will also see what damage Milchan’s testimony, and that of others, does to Netanyahu.

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