James Packer: Cigars, stars and pink champagne: How he made an impact in Israel

Limor Dicovsky, who worked as a chef for Packer and Milchan, told the court this month that when Packer visited Israel, the Netanyahus regularly dined at his house – next to theirs.

“A lot of meals, they just lived nearby,” she said, according to the details of the case reported in Haaretz English by reporter Yael Freidson. Dicovsky confirmed estimates she gave in her police statement that the couple ate at Packer’s house 10 to 15 times. She said these meals were less formal than those at Milchan’s, and that she had been asked to make the Netanyahus “whatever they want”. Packer’s friends say the favor was returned almost as often, where he would dine at the Netanyahus’ house, but his own chef would provide the food.

Dicovsky said Packer’s house had an assortment of cigars served to guests in a humidor as well as cigars in sealed packages. The latter, she said, were intended only for Netanyahu, who received them as a gift. Shani Koskas, Packer’s housekeeper, added under oath that no other Packer guest received cigar boxes from him.

Dicovsky said meals for the Netanyahus were not routine and she should have “more of everything” as each member of the couple would ask for different dishes. She said that on several occasions she cooked at the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem when Milchan or Packer were guests. She also described cooking a large meal at Packer’s house that was sent to the Netanyahus. Milchan and Packer paid for all meals, Dicovsky testified.

The indictment against Netanyahu in case 1000 accuses the returned prime minister of fraud and breach of trust for accepting lavish gifts from Milchan and Packer worth about $295,000 and for intervening on behalf of Milchan when he sought to extend a visa to the United States and helped with regulation a benefit.

Friends say the reclusive Packer, a former media and casino tycoon who has battled alcoholism and mental health issues, remains close to Netanyahu, who with his allies won a decisive majority in Israel’s parliamentary elections earlier this month, paving the way for him to return to power at the head of one of the most right-wing governments in the country’s history.

His dramatic return to office comes just 15 months after he was ousted by a sprawling eight-party coalition that brought together parties from across the political spectrum, united primarily by a desire to remove him.

But the 73-year-old continues to face a laundry list of charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. He has strenuously denied all allegations, but vowed not to use his newfound authority to interfere with the legal process.

Along with this case, Netanyahu is being charged with fraud and breach of trust in two others, as well as bribery in one of them. He admitted to receiving gifts, but insisted they were “the tiniest of trifles” and perfectly legal. He has claimed without evidence that the allegations were fabricated and part of an attempt by the prosecutor and political rivals to force him out of office.

Netanyahu was acquitted in a fourth case, Case 3000, which involved the government’s purchase of German-made submarines. One court is hearing all three cases at once, rather than one after the other, delaying the prospect of a verdict any time soon.

According to Haaretz, Koskas testified last week that Netanyahu and his wife Sara “would often come to the [Caesarea] facilities and staff of the house … to eat and drink,” usually when Packer was absent.

She described an incident during Passover in 2016 when she showed up at work and the Netanyahu couple had come to the house for a swim. Koskas told the trial that Hadas Klein, personal assistant to both Packer and Milchan, had told her that Sara Netanyahu had asked for cigars and champagne.

“Hadas asked me to put three bottles of pink champagne, a bottle of white champagne and cigars in black plastic bags.”

Dicovsky also said she saw Klein and Yonatan Hasson, their driver, bring crates of champagne to the car, but did not give them to Netanyahu.

Hasson testified that he brought some 20 to 25 batches of champagne boxes, sometimes including cigars, to the former prime minister.

“Let’s say they didn’t have 25 birthdays during the entire period,” Hasson told the court.

Hasson said there were three instances during these deliveries where he failed to deliver the gifts directly to the Prime Minister’s residence in Balfour.

“Once I was asked to bring two cases of champagne to Caesarea. When I got there, the one who opened the door was Netanyahu. He pointed in the direction of the kitchen and that’s where the story ends,” said the driver Haaretz.

When asked about the cigar purchases for Milchan and Packer, Hasson explained that “99 percent” of them were intended to be delivered to Netanyahu. He added that the two businessmen also knew “100 percent” of all gifts bought for the Netanyahus on their behalf.

He said Packer was aware of this whole matter, but “asked not to be informed about every little thing”.

Bought at Netanyahu’s suggestion, Packer had millions of dollars invested in his home with a heated pool, massive Jacuzzi, outdoor fireplace, private gym, and a host of other amenities. Among the guests who visited the property over time was Jordan Belfort, the dubious stockbroker who wrote The Wolf of Wall Streetwhich became a hit movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, another of Packer’s close friends.

Former Israeli Ministry of Communications Director General Shlomo Filber met with Netanyahu and Milchan at the villa and discussed a handful of what-ifs, including the Prime Minister’s alleged fantasies of Packer taking financial stakes in local newspapers and television networks.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and then Australian Foreign Secretary Julie Bishop reportedly enjoyed Packer’s hospitality there.

Milchan later told police during their investigation that it was “a kind of convenience to go from house to house, from yard to yard, from pool to pool, from food island to food island”.

Netanyahu’s lawyer, Amit Hadad, has argued that Packer had a habit of treating his guests to cigars and champagne, not buying them just for the Netanyahu couple.

According to the prosecution, the cigars and champagne bought by Packer were mainly intended for the Netanyahus.

In this regard, Hadad handed over a letter from Packer’s friend Ben Tilly, stating that he smoked a cigar provided by Packer every night during his stay in Israel.

A letter from Guy Jalland, one of Packer’s most trusted lieutenants, stated that many people were entertained at Milchan’s home in Israel and given pink champagne. Jalland added that Packer drank champagne himself. To this, Klein replied that “Mr. Packer hardly drank”.

“He drank alcohol in large quantities, everything was available, all brands… but he never drank pink champagne,” she said, which was unique to the Netanyahu couple.

An investigation into former Mossad director Yossi Cohen was closed this year after it was revealed that he too had received $20,000 in cash from Packer on the occasion of Cohen’s daughter’s wedding. Cohen, who initially claimed the gift was much smaller, has since returned the money.

Shimon Peres, the late former president and political rival of Netanyahu, was invited to dinner at Packer’s home and received a $1 million contribution to his Center for Peace and Innovation in Tel Aviv. Packer, who has told friends of his deep admiration for Peres, is reported to have knelt and kissed his feet on one occasion.

But Packer’s relationship with Peres was one of the few differences he had with Netanyahu.

In July, Klein testified to that the The prime minister had vetoed a $3 million donation after Milchan told Netanyahu.

“Netanyahu was very angry and called [Packer] and demanded we stop the rest of the donation, saying there were other agencies worth donating to,” she said. “Since then, Packer has never donated to the Peres Center again.”

Relations between Milchan and Packer have since deteriorated after Packer accused Milchan of passing some of his sensitive medical issues to DiCaprio.

“I received a letter with all the dirty words that I had betrayed him [Packer] by telling Leo that the whole world would talk — he was in a state of ecstasy,” Milchan said during his interrogation last year.

“The last time I saw him was at Shimon Peres’ funeral [September 30, 2016]. He looked like a zombie, like someone from Madame Tussaud’s.’

Two weeks after that funeral, Packer left Israel and has not returned, but his generosity to his friends still casts a cloud over Netanyahu’s future. Packer declined to comment when approached by this masthead, saying it would be “inappropriate.”

The process continues.

This article is based on reports from Haaretz news reporter Jael Freidson.

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Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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