The majority shareholder in the Bezeq telecommunications company and a former top adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were released to house arrest Sunday morning after 15 days in police custody, as part of a high-profile corruption case involving the premier.
After repeated remand extensions over the past two weeks, the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court ruled that Bezeq owner Shaul Elovitch and media adviser Nir Hefetz, both central suspects in probe dubbed Case 4000, should be released from custody. The court however, accepted a police request to keep them under house arrest for a further 10 days as the investigation continues.
The court also agreed to a police request to issue an order preventing them from leaving the country for nearly half a year or communicating with any of the other suspects in the case for 90 days. Elovitch was further banned from entering the Bezeq offices for 45 days.
The releases came after Netanyahu and his wife Sara were questioned for the first time over the case.
The Case 4000 investigation involves suspicions that Elovitch ordered the Walla news site, which he owns, to grant fawning coverage to the Netanyahus in exchange for the prime minister’s advancement of regulations benefiting him.
Investigators questioned Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem Friday morning, while his wife Sara was interrogated separately for five hours at the Lahav 433 anti-corruption unit’s headquarters in Lod. Elovitch and Hefetz were also questioned at the same time.
Hebrew media reported that the two were questioned under caution as suspects in the case. Asked to confirm whether the prime minister or his wife were being treated as criminal suspects, a police spokesman remained vague, telling The Times of Israel only that the interrogations took place “in general as part of the investigation.”
Speaking at a remand hearing for Elovitch and Hefetz last week, state prosecutor Yehudit Tirosh of the Israel Securities Authority said that Netanyahu was at the center of “a very grave instance of giving and taking bribes.”
Perhaps hinting at the possibility that Elovitch and Hefetz could try to speak with the prime minister before he faced police investigators, Tirosh said that their extended remand was necessary to prevent “obstruction of justice.”
“There is a real suspicion that if the suspects are released today, hugely important investigative work that needs to be carried out in the coming days will be thwarted,” she said on Wednesday.
Last week, the court released to house arrest five other suspects in the case — Elovitch’s wife, Iris; his son, Or; Bezeq CEO Stella Handler; Bezeq’s deputy CEO for business development, Amikam Shorer; and media advisor Eli Kamir — but acceded to a request from the prosecution to keep Elovitch and Hefetz in custody until Sunday.
Now that the Netanyahus have been questioned, the prosecution appeared content to release Elovitch and Hefetz from custody, telling the court that they were only requesting house arrest from now on.
Channel 10 news reported that during his questioning, the prime minister was presented with audio tapes of Elovitch and Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua discussing coverage of the Netanyahus, as well as WhatsApp messages his wife sent to Iris Elovitch in which she pressed her to take down negative coverage of the couple.
Netanyahu is said to have responded that he discussed Walla’s coverage with Elovitch on several occasions, but denied that he had ever promised him benefits in return for changing the site’s reporting.
Sara Netanyahu, meanwhile, reportedly told investigators her husband had not been aware of her messages to Iris Elovitch. She claimed she had asked her to improve coverage as a friend, and that she had never had a hand in dealings related to Bezeq.
Netanyahu served as communications minister from November 2014 to February 2017. During that time, Walla’s coverage notably changed to favor the Netanyahu family, and Bezeq was given permission, among other things, to buy the satellite cable provider Yes, overriding antitrust issues, and to renege on its commitment to lease out its infrastructure to telecom competitors so they could provide competing fixed line and internet services.
Shlomo Filber, the former director-general of the Communications Ministry and a longtime Netanyahu confidant, signed a deal last month to turn state’s witness and possibly incriminate Netanyahu in the affair.
In a video and text statement posted on Facebook (Hebrew), the prime minister said after completing his questioning Friday that he felt “more sure than ever before” that “nothing” will come of the latest corruption investigation.
Confidants told Channel 10 the premier “answered all the questions he was asked” and “feels very good about the investigation.”
Netanyahu in the video also thanked the “millions of Israeli citizens who express such strong support in me, my wife and my family. You warm our hearts. Thank you.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.