Why Wasn’t Netanyahu Ever Indicted in the US?

Benjamin Netanyahu’s prosecution for corruption in an Israeli courtroom is now underway. The current Israeli Prime Minister is facing three counts of fraud and breach of trust and one count of bribery.

The first count listed in the charge sheet details Israeli movie producer Arnon Milchan’s long relationship with Netanyahu. Netanyahu received approximately $140,000 worth of cigars, champagne, and jewelry in exchange for favors to Milchan. Those favors included advancing Milchan’s Israeli news media business interests and promoting at Milchan’s suggestion a free-trade zone between Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority to manufacture low cost vehicles.

Netanyahu’s most important favor to Milchan, according to the charges, was using his influence as Prime Minister to respond in 2013 and 2014 to Milchan’s urgent pleas for help with a 10-year visa to continue residing in the United States.

After Milchan’s application for renewal was flagged by the US Department of State, Netanyahu immediately contacted US Ambassador Dan Shapiro to assist Milchan. But despite that assistance, Milchan’s visa was only extended for a single year, "unlike previous cases where the visa was extended for a longer period of time," according to the charge sheet.

Milchan then demanded that Netanyahu intervene directly with high officials in the Obama administration. Milchan even showed up at the Prime Minister’s Residence with a box of cigars and a crate of champagne, plying Netanyahu to telephone US Secretary of State John Kerry, which Netanyahu promptly did. Kerry subsequently overruled the State Department’s official stance toward Milchan and in 2014 extended Milchan’s US visa for 10 years.

The renewal was of immediate value to Milchan, allowing him to continue producing Hollywood blockbuster movies through his Regency Enterprises. The 2016 movie The Revenant, produced by Milchan and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, generated over half a billion dollars in box office revenues.

Why did the US Department of State originally flag Milchan’s visa? When asked, staffers of the Directorate for Visa Services claimed in 2017 that the Immigration and Nationality Act exempts from disclosure even the fact of whether visa records "relative to a particular individual" exist, much less their contents.

However, other documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act from the FBI in 2012 and additional Department of Homeland Security files released in 2017 reveal that Milchan’s involvement in a nuclear weapons technology smuggling ring targeting the United States may have generated the State Department red flag.

The files reveal that Milchan, Netanyahu and American scientist Richard Kelly Smyth in the 1980s unlawfully smuggled 15 shipments containing 810 nuclear weapons triggers out of the United States to the Israeli Ministry of Defense through a network of Milchan companies. Only Smyth was ever indicted and prosecuted. But he mostly escaped punishment by fleeing the United States and then petitioning for leniency on his prison sentence after he was extradited from Malaga, Spain back to the US years later. Smyth reached out to Milchan in 2001 for financial support to help him mount his legal defense.

FBI documents reveal Netanyahu worked at one of the Milchan companies involved in the smuggling ring in Israel called Heli Trading. In his September 20, 2001 letter soliciting financial support from Milchan, Smyth cheerfully noted, "I was delighted to hear your former employee, Netanyahu, had become Prime Minister of Israel."

Given the amount of official information in the public domain, and that more is likely still under lock and key, Americans may well wonder why Netanyahu and Milchan were never indicted in the United States for violating the Atomic Energy Act. Curiously, neither appear in the US Department of Treasury list of "specifically designated Nationals" even though official U.S. information now circulating in the public domain about Netanyahu and Milchan’s activities easily meet the low standards of evidence used to generate the SDN list.

Grant F. Smith is the director of the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy in Washington which is co-organizer of the 2021 Transcending the Israel Lobby at Home and Abroad conference at the National Press Club.