Has anyone got an explanation as to what James Packer is doing in Israel and why he has become so close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, such that he’s now front and centre in a corruption investigation

After a third interview with Israeli television this morning about James Packer, I’m still no closer to the precise reason behind the casino billionaire’s decision to shower the Netanyahu family with gifts and seek residency in Israel.

For starters, such a high-risk strategy may raise questions about Packer’s probity and suitability in terms of running licensed casinos in Melbourne, Perth and Sydney.

Having pulled all sorts of strings to get bipartisan support for his Sydney casino at Barangaroo in the Packer family’s home town, it would hardly be kosher to then seek residency in another country.

There are many global Rich Listers who take a keen interest in Israeli politics and business and visit regularly, but the vast majority are Jewish. Why would James Packer come out so strongly in 2015 parroting the Netanyahu line in declaring Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran “the stupidest thing I’ve seen in my life”?

The best explanation I’ve got is simply that Packer has developed close ties with several of these players, most notably Hollywood business partners Arnon Milchan and Brett Ratner and some Australian players such as Westfield founder Frank Lowy and the Bassat brothers of Seek fame.

Packer tends to fall in and out of love quite quickly when it comes to business, politics, friendships  and partners — and he obviously went through quite a bromance with the Netanyahu family, but there’s been no recent evidence of further associations.

Sitting next to Arnon Milchan when Natanyahu addressed a joint sitting of Congress in March 2015 was the most overt statement of support.

I had a 90-minute meeting with Packer at Crown Melbourne on Christmas Eve in 2014 when he talked about global politics being his main passion and spending a lot of time in Israel. However, there was no direct explanation besides a passing reference to having “friends” in Israel.

Billionaire Republican supporter Sheldon Adelson is another potential connection to Israel, as he has gone so far as to open his own free newspaper. Packer rates himself, Adelson and Steve Wynn as the world’s top three casino moguls, so there may also be a touch of keeping up with the competition.

The Packer family has long worked the political system hard in Australia through big donations, cultivating friendships and hiring former political operators such as Peter Barron, Graham Richardson, Karl Bitar, Mark Arbib, Stephen Conroy, Garry O’Neil, Helen Coonan and Peter Credlin.

However, that always made sense from a commercial point of view when the family was invested in government-licensed business such as casinos and television.

Casinos are banned in Israel, although there has been some talk about building one in the Red Sea resort town of Eilat.

Legalising casinos might have been an early motivation in cultivating Netanyahu, but with Packer withdrawing back to Australia, it’s an unlikely prospect now, particularly given the controversy that has engulfed the relationship.

Reducing his Australian tax bill through a government incentive scheme for wealthy expats is another oft-cited motivation for residency and the Netanyahu relationship, but there are plenty of other tax havens such as Bermuda or Monaco where Packer could chase such a benefit.   

Another explanation might be the thriving technology and start-up culture in Israel, where entrepreneurs are lauded for their success. Packer is backing Paul Bassat’s Square Peg fund, which has made some early investments in Israeli start-ups.

There is a chance that Packer’s love affair with Israel is already over, just like the Mariah Carey romance, which Vanity Fair has just covered in detail, which will be excruciating for the billionaire. Who needs your 37-page prenup attacked like that?

Packer hates negative publicity and quit the Sunland board straight after adverse reports about its business dealings in Dubai. Given the blizzard of Israeli publicity in recent weeks, he may already have vowed to move on.

Getting back on the Crown board is a sure sign that Packer is focusing more on home, although he remains resolutely against bringing his kids up in Australia because of the pressure of carrying the family name.

If that’s the case, why not bring them up in Israel rather than Los Angeles, as is currently the case? The answer probably lies with their mother, Erica Baxter, and security concerns in Israel.

Here’s a timeline of recent events connected to Packer’s Israel push:

  • December 2012: James Packer and Brett Ratner form Rat-Pac entertainment.
  • June 2014: Brett Ratner introduces Packer and Carey in Aspen at a premiere of his movie Hercules
  • March 2015: Packer watches Netanyahu speech to Congress
  • June 2015: Packer creates new cyber security business with Netanyahu confidant Arnon Milchon
  • July 2015: Packer and Carey become an item.
  • December 2015: Packer quits the Crown board.
  • October 2016: Packer and Carey split.
  • January 2017: Packer scales back Las Vegas and Macau investments, announces return to the Crown board.

And here are a few links on the coverage so far in terms of James Packer and Israel.

Peter Fray

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