Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his son Yair, wife Sara, and Yossi Cohen – the Netanyahu loyalist who became chief of the Mossad – befriended, manipulated, and emotionally abused Australian billionaire James Packer as the mentally troubled businessman worked to establish ties with Israel’s political elite, a deep-dive investigation by Haaretz citing court testimony and individuals familiar with the situation has alleged.
Police launched a corruption investigation into the Netanyahus in late 2016 on the basis of testimony of a personal assistant to Packer and Arnon Milchan – the Israeli billionaire Hollywood producer and arms dealer. The assistant said that Milchan, who knew his way around Israel’s political elite, introduced Packer to Netanyahu in 2013, and convinced him to shower the prime minister’s family with lavish gifts ranging from expensive cigars and cases of champagne to jewellery and other fashion accessories worth thousands of dollars to facilitate business.
Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara would allegedly go on to use a combination of smooth talking and psychological pressure to get Packer to buy controlling stakes in media outlets to portray the prime minister in a positive light, even as some observers expressed concerns about the billionaire’s mental state.
“I thought he came to some of the meetings with Bibi drunk or high,” Ari Harow, a former Netanyahu chief of staff who resigned in 2015 and turned state’s witness in a plea bargain amid the corruption probe, said in testimony. “One time when he came for a meeting he threw up.”
Israeli politician Yair Lapid, whom Milchan had also introduced to Packer, similarly expressed concerns about the Australian billionaire’s state when they met, saying he “looked drugged.”
However, the Netanyahus allegedly overlooked these problems, or even sought to use them to their advantage, with Harow testifying that “it was clear that the relationship from [Netanyahu’s] point of view was in order to benefit from this friendship.”
Positive Media Coverage and Luxury Perks for Bibi and Sara
The “friendship” would allegedly be fruitful for the Netanyahus, with Packer making a series of investments in Israel – holding negotiations to try to buy the Walla news portal, allegedly at Netanyahu’s behest, and attempting to purchase of the Yedioth Ahronoth Group, publisher of a major Israeli daily of the same name known for investigating the prime minister and his family.
In his testimony, Milchan suggested that Netanyahu convinced Packer to make a bid for Yedioth Ahronoth by cynically bringing up the Holocaust. “Netanyahu’s premise is that in order to help the Jewish people after what happened in the Holocaust – and I’m using his words, ‘we are facing a Holocaust now – don’t count [money]. We’ll get rid of [publisher Arnon Mozes], because otherwise I fall, and if I fall the Jewish people falls’,” Milchan said.
Harow, meanwhile, accused Netanyahu of briefing Packer on what to say during the bid to buy the newspaper, and of going “into minute details,” while Sara Netanyahu complained to the billionaire about how Mozes was “always attacking her and the children” and needed “to be removed.”
According to testimony from Packer’s aide, after the business meeting fell through, Sara Netanyahu “shouted” at him, which pushed him into a deep depression. “He took it really hard,” the aide said. “He very much admired them and loved them, and he’s a sensitive guy. A good soul with a huge heart, who needs warmth and love.”
In 2016, Packer bought a mansion next to Netanyahu’s property in Caesarea, an elite community in the country’s north, allegedly after being pressed to do so by the prime minister. In his testimony to police, Netanyahu denied any wrongdoing and suggested that one wants “to know who’s in the house next to yours.” According to investigators, the Netanyahus would go on to treat the house "almost as though it was their own," regularly visiting the property while Packer was away and taking advantage of the free service from onsite housekeepers.
Free Pads for Yair and a Lucrative Job Offer for His Friend
During his time in Israel, Packer leased an apartment at the prestigious Royal Beach Hotel in Tel Aviv, with Yair Netanyahu reportedly becoming a regular fixture there during visits to the city. Packer took a liking to the young man, and the two reportedly went out clubbing, with Packer picking up the tab. Yair was also invited to stay at the billionaire’s properties in New York, Aspen and Ibiza.
According to police, Yair convinced Packer to hire his friend Roman Abramov – a nightclub promoter in his late 20s – to manage his business interests in Israel. In testimony to authorities in 2017, Abramov admitted that he hadn’t made the Australian businessman any money during his tenure as manager of his empire. He was fired shortly after testifying to police, with the affair also reportedly prompting Packer to cut off any association with the younger Netanyahu, who complained to police that they had “scared the s*** out of him.”
Lucrative Job Offer for Future Mossad Chief
Cohen was appointed to run Mossad in late 2015, but before that, Packer was said to have offered him a lucrative job as CEO of BSI, a cybersecurity firm owned jointly by Packer and Milchan, with the offer including a $10 million signing bonus and 1/3 of the company’s shares. Packer reportedly suffered a nervous breakdown after Cohen blew him off and ultimately rejected his offer in favour of the Mossad post.
The billionaire would reportedly go on to grow increasingly paranoid that he was being spied upon, fearing that the Obama administration would like to have him killed over his friendship with the Netanyahus. Packer reportedly destroyed his electronic devices, and according to Milchan’s testimony, in the summer of 2016, sent out emails saying he was “a friend of the head of the Mossad” and a “friend of the prime minister,” presumably as a warning.
In early 2016, Packer arrived in Israel to receive treatment for his mental condition (he later revealed to investigators that he suffers from bipolar disorder). Staff rented a private house for him and hired bodyguards to prevent him from escaping, with his fiancé at the time, the singer Mariah Carey, expressing concerns that he may have been kidnapped by Mossad, with Cohen calling her to allay her fears. After being treated, Packer reportedly gifted Cohen $20,000 in cash at the Mossad chief daughter’s wedding.
In 2016, Netanyahu hatched a new investment scheme for Packer, proposing the creation of an "Israeli Fox News Channel" with funding from Packer, Milchan and the Murdoch family, reportedly asking the Australian to invest $25 million and telling him he was “counting on” him.
That project ultimately fell through after police investigations into Netanyahu became public.
In early October 2016, as police sought to detain Packer for questioning about the lavish gifts for Netanyahu, the prime minister personally called an assistant to the billionaire urging him and his yacht to “beat it out of here.” Several days after that, Packer flew out of Ben-Gurion International Airport, leaving Israel for the last time, with one person involved in the police probe calling the failure to interview him “a resounding snafu.” Israeli Police caught up with Packer in late 2017, speaking to him at a luxury hotel in Melbourne, Australia.