Key witness: Netanyahu received gifts from billionaires

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 premier in a scandal at the center of the country’s political crisis.

The expensive gifts lavished upon the former Israeli leader by wealthy friends are the subject of one of the three corruption cases against Netanyahu. He stands accused of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes, charges he has denied and dismissed as part of an attempt to oust him from office.

The Netanyahus “love gifts, and they love pink champagne and cigars for Bibi,” Hadas Klein, the longtime assistant of one of the former premier’s friends, testified Tuesday, using the prime minister’s nickname.

The ongoing trial — already in its second year — is addressing allegations that while in office, Netanyahu accepted gifts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars from Hollywood film producer Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer.

Klein, Milchan’s longtime assistant, told the Jerusalem District Court that she had been instructed to buy gifts for the prime minister and his wife so that Milchan could stay in the couple’s good graces.

“You can’t come empty-handed, because if you come empty-handed you won’t be invited again,” Israeli media quoted her as telling the court.

In an additional testimony Wednesday, Klein presented receipts for cigars amounting to some $12,000 and described demands from the then-prime minister’s wife, Sara Netanyahu, for bottles of champagne and jewelry, Israeli media reported.

During the emotional testimony, Klein also elaborated on mistreatment she faced, telling the court the prime minister’s wife screamed at her when she failed to provide the requested gifts.

The indictment claims Netanyahu used his position of power to further Milchan’s interests, representing a conflict between his public duties and personal friendship. Netanyahu did personal favors for Milchan, including asking US officials to extend Milchan’s US resident’s permit and extending Israeli regulations exempting Israeli returnees from declaring foreign income, according to the indictment.

Netanyahu refutes the claims of wrongdoing, saying he wasn’t acting in Milchan’s personal interests and even occasionally acted against them. He says the exchanges of gifts were just friendly gestures.

In the other cases against Netanyahu, he is accused of trying to orchestrate positive coverage in a major Israeli paper in exchange for promoting legislation that would have hampered the news outlet’s chief rival, a free pro-Netanyahu daily. The third, dubbed 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 its Walla news site.

Israel is heading to its fifth election in less than four years in November. The country has been mired in a protracted political crisis — with the past four elections ending in deadlock — in large part because of widespread divisions in the public over Netanyahu’s fitness to serve while under indictment.

Netanyahu was ousted from office last year after eight ideologically diverse parties joined forces and formed a coalition government that was bound largely based on little more than shared apathy to Netanyahu. The coalition collapsed last week after months of infighting and defections.

He still leads the dominant Likud party, the largest in the Israeli Knesset, as the country heads to yet another parliamentary election. The scathing testimony also comes as the country’s political discourse centers around high cost of living, inflation and financial struggles of the middle class.

Opinion polls suggest that Likud will once again be the largest party after the election. But it is unclear whether it and its religious and nationalist allies will control the parliamentary majority required to form a new government.

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