Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett attacked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday evening, after Hadashot TV news reported that the premier had used his relationship with businessman Shaul Elovitch to seek negative coverage of the education minister’s wife.
Netanyahu’s ties to Elovitch have been the subject of an investigation in which police have recommended the premier be indicted for bribery. Officials believe Netanyahu advanced regulatory decisions benefiting Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in Bezeq, the country’s largest telecommunications firm — despite opposition from the Communication Ministry’s career officials — in exchange for positive coverage from Elovitch’s Walla news site.
The Hadashot report said that “one day Netanyahu asked him to publish a negative report that Gilat, Naftali Bennett’s wife, served as a chef at non-kosher restaurants. They didn’t agree to publish such a thing.”
An incensed Bennett wrote on Twitter: “I feel sorry for you Mr. Netanyahu. You took the trouble to personally call the owner of Walla to hurt my wife. This was a vile and cowardly act. Shame on you. I married Gilat, a wonderful woman, an Israeli from a secular and principled family, and together we built a wonderful religious Zionist home. My family is the pride of my life.
“Don’t apologize to me, I’m not interested. Apologize to my wife.”
Netanyahu himself has long complained about the media reporting gossipy items about his family.
Bennett’s party is key to Netanyahu’s coalition, which would collapse without Jewish Home’s support. Bennett recently considered resigning after Netanyahu refused his demand to be made defense minister, but decided against the move at the last moment.
The coalition was reduced last month to a paper-thin majority of just 61-59 in the 120-seat Knesset, after Yisrael Beytenu quit the government over its handling of conflict with Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
On Sunday police said they were recommending bribery charges against both Netanyahu and his wife, Sara Netanyahu, in the Bezeq corruption probe, known as Case 4000.
In a blistering accusation, police said “the prime minister and his associates intervened in a blatant and ongoing manner, and sometimes even daily, in the content published by the Walla news website, and also sought to influence the appointment of senior officials (editors and reporters) via their contacts with Shaul and Iris Elovitch,” the Bezeq owner’s wife.
“The main suspicion is that the prime minister took bribes and acted in a conflict of interest by intervening and acting in regulatory decisions that favor Shaul Elovitch and the Bezeq Group, while at the same time directly and indirectly demanded interference with the content of the Walla site in a way that would benefit him,” police said in a joint statement with the Israel Securities Authority, which also took part in the nine-month investigation.
Police said there was “improper conduct between Netanyahu and Elovitch on two main axes: diverting media coverage in exchange for preferable regulation.”
Investigators said they believe there is enough evidence to bring Netanyahu to trial on charges of accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust and fraudulently accepting benefits.
The Bezeq case is the most serious of the three cases in which Netanyahu has been accused. Two of his top confidants have turned state witnesses and are believed to have provided police with incriminating evidence. Netanyahu held the government’s communications portfolio until last year and oversaw regulation in the field. Many former journalists at Walla have attested to being pressured to refrain from negative reporting of Netanyahu.
Police say the investigation, which included the testimony of 60 witnesses, revealed that Netanyahu and Bezeq boss Elovitch engaged in a “bribe-based relationship.” Two suspects turned state’s witness helped police in the investigation: former media adviser to the Netanyahu family Nir Hefetz and former Communications Ministry director-general Shlomo Filber.
The summary of the investigation also included a recommendation to charge Sara Netanyahu with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, and for “disruption of investigative and judicial proceedings,” as well as charges against Elovitch.
Sara Netanyahu, police said, acted on the prime minister’s behalf to coordinate coverage at Walla with Shaul Elovitch, Iris Elovitch and Ilan Yeshua, the CEO of the news site, against whom they also recommended bribery charges.
“The findings also revealed that the Elovitch family influenced Walla’s publications, in exchange for the prime minister’s regulatory decisions in favor of Shaul Elovitch and the Bezeq Group, and out of a desire to further advance the business interests of the Bezeq Group in general and its controlling shareholder in particular,” police said.
Police said there was enough evidence to indict Shaul and Iris Elovitch, as well as Bezeq official Amirak Shorer, on charges of giving bribes, disruption of investigative and judicial proceedings, and breaking money laundering laws. They also recommended charging their son Or Elovitch and former Bezeq CEO Stella Handler for fraud and breach of trust, and Ze’ev Rubenstein, a close friend of the Netanyahu and Elovitch families and vice president of Israel Bonds, for bribery charges.
Netanyahu denied the allegations Sunday, accusing the police of a conspiracy against him.
“The police recommendations regarding me and my wife don’t surprise anyone, nor does the transparent timing of their publication,” Netanyahu said in a statement.
Sunday marked the final full day in office of police commissioner Roni Alsheich, who was appointed by Netanyahu but with whom Netanyahu has tangled, and whose term the prime minister declined to extend for a customary fourth year.
“These recommendations were set and leaked before the investigations even started,” he said. “Police recommendations have no legal standing. Just recently the relevant authorities rejected outright police recommendations against a series of public officials. I’m sure that in this case as well, the relevant authorities, after checking the matter, will reach the same conclusion — that there isn’t anything because nothing happened.”
Netanyahu declined Wednesday to respond to Bennett’s post or the latest Hadashot report but his son, Yair Netanyahu, hit back at the Jewish Home leader, accusing him of spreading rumors against Sara Netanyahu.
“Come one,” he wrote in a message directed at Bennett, “you did the same a million times against my mother.”
In their Sunday statement, police specifically noted that the Case 4000 investigation had not found enough evidence to bring charges against Yair Netanyahu, who was questioned a number of times during the investigation.
Netanyahu is also a suspect in two other corruption probes, cases 1000 and 2000 — two investigations in which police have already recommended bribery indictments.
In Case 1000, the so-called “gifts scandal,” Netanyahu is suspected of “systematically” demanding benefits worth about NIS 1 million ($282,000) from billionaire benefactors, including Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and Australian resort owner James Packer, in exchange for favors.
Case 2000 involves a suspected illicit quid pro quo deal between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes that would have seen the prime minister work to weaken a rival daily, the Sheldon Adelson-backed Israel Hayom, in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.
Netanyahu has denied wrongdoing in all of the cases, insisting the gifts were given by friends and were not bribes, and that he never intended to act on his conversations with Mozes.
The recommendations in Case 4000 now go to the Attorney General’s Office, where they will first be reviewed by the state prosecutor before going to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit.
Mandelblit, who will make the final decision whether to indict the prime minister, intends to examine all three cases at the same time, which will be possible only after he receives the state attorney’s recommendations based on the final police reports.
That process makes late 2019 the likely timing for any final word on whether Netanyahu will face trial. The next Knesset elections are currently slated for November 2019, but may very well be held earlier.
AP contributed to this report.