In one of the more dramatic moments in the yearslong corruption trial of Benjamin Netanyahu, Arnon Milchan, a Hollywood movie mogul, billionaire spy and old friend of the Israeli prime minister, took the stand on Sunday to testify as a key witness for the prosecution in an alleged gifts-for-favors affair known as Case 1000.
In the opening hours of his testimony, Mr. Milchan described his relationship with Mr. Netanyahu as “close friends, almost brothers,” and confirmed that he had given cigars and Champagne to Mr. Netanyahu and his wife, Sara. Much of the case hinges on whether such gifts were given in friendship or in return for favors, and that will most likely be the focus of the questioning during Mr. Milchan’s testimony and cross-examination, which is expected to take about 10 days.
Mr. Netanyahu, who is on trial in three separate but interlocking corruption cases, has been charged with fraud and breach of trust in the case involving Mr. Milchan. Mr. Netanyahu has denied all wrongdoing. If convicted, he could face jail time.
Mr. Milchan, 78, who produced blockbusters like “Pretty Woman,” “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” also worked for years for Israeli intelligence as a weapons procurer. His colorful life and relationship with Mr. Netanyahu has helped turned the Case 1000 trial into a showcase of the nexus of money, power and influence in Israel.
A star role.
According to prosecutors, Mr. Milchan lavished Mr. and Mrs. Netanyahu with gifts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars from 2011 to 2016, mostly in the form of boxes of expensive cigars and pink Champagne delivered by the crate to the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem and to his private household in the seaside town of Caesarea.
Mr. Netanyahu, who was prime minister then, as he is now, is accused of having intervened with American officials to help Mr. Milchan renew his 10-year visa to the United States and of pushing for the extension of a tax-exemption law and for a telecoms merger that prosecutors say would both have been to Mr. Milchan’s benefit.
Mr. Netanyahu has argued that there is nothing illegal about receiving gifts from an old friend.
In his testimony on Sunday, according to reports from the courtroom in Jerusalem, Mr. Milchan described his close relationship with Mr. Netanyahu and how they would discuss history and economics together. Mr. Milchan said he had been assisting Israel in security matters from the 1960s up until today, adding, “I cannot elaborate on how many things Netanyahu and I did, secretly, for the country.”
The deliveries of cigars and Champagne, which had come to light in previous testimony, from Mr. Milchan’s personal assistant in Israel, Hadas Klein, amounted to what prosecutors have described as “a sort of supply channel.” On occasion, Ms. Netanyahu received jewelry, too, the court has heard.
Mr. Milchan said on Sunday that the gift-giving had begun at his own initiative, but that later it became routine and at times came in response to requests. He said that he and the Netanyahus had code names for the gifts, referring to cigars as “leaves” and the Champagne as “pinks.”
At one point in the Case 1000 investigation, Mr. Milchan was suspected by the Israeli police of bribery, but Israel’s attorney general found no grounds to charge him with any crime.
Mr. Milchan’s testimony is considered crucial to the case because he might be able to enlighten the judges about the nature of his relationship with Mr. Netanyahu and whether there was a clear link between the gifts and Mr. Netanyahu’s actions on Mr. Milchan’s behalf.
Mr. Milchan is testifying from Brighton, England, via a video conference link to the Jerusalem District Court.
Why testify from England?
The courts gave Mr. Milchan special permission to testify remotely from the English seaside resort of Brighton, near where he is currently living, after his lawyers cited medical grounds for his refusal to travel to Israel.
Mr. Milchan owns an estate and other property in Israel and has declared himself proud of his contributions to the country’s security, but he has not set foot in the country for at least six years, according to court documents, since he was interrogated by the Israeli police investigating Mr. Netanyahu’s corruption case.
Mr. Milchan is testifying from a hall in the Old Ship Hotel in Brighton that was rented by the Israeli government for the occasion. Reporters and members of the public were not allowed in, but Sara Netanyahu, Mr. Netanyahu’s wife, was in the hall, representing her husband.
Mr. Netanyahu was expected to follow the proceedings on a screen in the courtroom in Jerusalem.
Friend or foe?
According to prosecutors, Mr. Milchan’s relationship with Mr. Netanyahu dates to 1999. An Israeli documentary program about Mr. Milchan that aired a decade ago showed a framed letter signed by Mr. Netanyahu to Mr. Milchan in 2009 in which Mr. Netanyahu thanked Mr. Milchan and described him as “my brother,” adding, “You are my rock in a storm.”
Asked in the documentary if he considered Mr. Netanyahu a friend, Mr. Milchan replied, “Yes, absolutely.”
It was not immediately clear if Mr. Milchan’s testimony would help exonerate or doom Mr. Netanyahu.
Mr. Netanyahu has argued that he was bound to help Mr. Milchan with his U.S. visa because of Mr. Milchan’s contributions to Israel’s national security and to the American economy.
But Ms. Klein, Mr. Milchan’s personal assistant in Israel, said in her court testimony last year that Mr. Milchan had became increasingly concerned about the expense and legality of providing the Netanyahus with a steady supply of luxury goods.
Asked if the Netanyahus reciprocated with gifts, Ms. Klein testified that she and Mr. Milchan once received key rings from the Netanyahus with some kind of prime ministerial logo on them and that Ms. Netanyahu had on occasion bought presents from an Israeli toy store for Mr. Milchan’s young children.