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Netanyahu on hot seat over free cigars, pink champagne and secret recordings

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. (Pool photo by Abir Sultan via AFP/Getty Images)

JERUSALEM — It’s no state secret that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, enjoy life’s little luxuries.

Just in the past three years, Netanyahu has drawn withering front-page coverage for scooping into the state treasury for a $2,700-a-year gourmet ice cream habit. Or for ordering a double bed for a five-hour plane ride to London. That cost taxpayers $127,000.

Sara Netanyahu, too, has come under scrutiny for her penchant for pink champagne — a former caretaker, Meni Naftali, who recently sued the couple for abusive treatment and won partial damages, testified that the first lady had a real taste for the bubbly. The Netanyahus denied the claim, calling it slander.

The first lady is often depicted as a kind of Marie Antoinette in the Israeli press. She drew ridicule in 2015 for a campaign video with a celebrity interior designer in which she kvetches about the dingy drapes she must endure at couple's official residence on Balfour Street.

Now her husband is in hot water again, seemingly over his and his family’s willingness to accept lavish gifts of Cuban cigars, French wines and other exclusive items.

Israeli police are asking whether something fishy is going on.

Twice in the past week, Benjamin Netanyahu has been “questioned under caution” by police investigators “on suspicions of receiving benefits.”

Public discussion now centers on whether his actions were innocent, unethical or criminal, if the gifts he got were bribes in exchange for political favors. Police have released scant details.

On Friday, Israeli media reported that Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan (“The Revenant,” “Fight Club,” “Pretty Woman,” among other credits) had spent up to $130,000 over eight years on boxes of Cohiba cigars and cases of champagne for the Netanyahu clan.

The police want to know what Milchan got in return.

Israeli news outlets, citing unnamed police sources, said Netanyahu stepped in to try to help the Israeli-born moviemaker gain a long-term U.S. visa by ringing up Secretary of State John F. Kerry at least three times on the issue.

Netanyahu’s attorney said there’s nothing wrong with a friend giving a friend a gift — even a lot of gifts.

The prime minister calls all the investigations a lot of hot air. “They won’t come to anything, because there isn’t anything,” Netanyahu said.

Then Monday, things took a troubling turn when Israel’s Channel 2 News reported that police had obtained a recording of a meeting between Netanyahu and an arch nemesis, media mogul Arnon “Noni” Mozes, publisher of Israel’s largest paid daily, Yedioth Ahronoth.

Yedioth is the ultimate Bibi-bashing machine (Bibi is Netanyahu’s nickname.). And Netanyahu never misses an opportunity to accuse Mozes and Yedioth of trying to take him down.

According to Israeli media, in the recording, Mozes attempted to negotiate with the prime minister a reduction in the circulation of his newspaper’s main competitor, Israel Hayom. In addition to serving as prime minister, Netanyahu serves as communications minister.

Israel Hayom — funded by another of Netanyahu’s close friends, the American casino magnate and super Republican donor Sheldon Adelson — is distributed free across the country and has taken a serious chunk out of Yedioth’s profits.

In exchange for reducing Israel Hayom’s weekend circulation, Israeli media reports said, Netanyahu asked Mozes to cover him more favorably in Yedioth, a request that Israeli commentator Ben Caspit called an “illegal negotiation.”

“A regulator who is negotiating with a publisher reducing the influence of a competing media outlet in exchange for a benefit. That is bribery, and if it ultimately wasn’t seen through, it is conspiracy to commit bribery. There’s no question here,” Caspit wrote in another daily, Maariv.

The police obtained the tape from former Netanyahu chief of staff Ari Harow, according to Channel 2 News.

Although these revelations no doubt put pressure on the long-serving prime minister, most Israeli analysts think they are unlikely to bring Netanyahu down.

A leader of Netanyahu’s Likud party, David Bitan, told Army Radio, “There will be no indictment. Even if there is a situation in which it will happen — and I do not see it happening — the prime minister should stay in office.”

This is not the first time that Netanyahu has been under suspicion over gifts.

In one case, known as the “Bibi Tours Affair,” there were suggestions that the prime minister and his family enjoyed trips worth tens of thousands of dollars as gifts from foreign business executives and groups.

Netanyahu has maintained his innocence and said nothing will come of the investigations. He told his foes in the press and parliament “to hold off on the celebrations.”

“All previous so-called affairs have proved baseless, and so it will be with the allegations now published in the media,” he said before police investigators arrived at his residence.

Writing on his Facebook page last week, Netanyahu urged his followers to recall: “Bibi tours — nothing! A claim of illicit campaign funding — nothing! A claim of skewing primary results — nothing! A claim of receiving gifts abroad and funding for flights — nothing!”

“Will someone in the media apologize for the thousands of headlines, hours of broadcasting the ‘investigative journalism at its best’ that have turned out to be total nonsense?” he asked.