Court rejects 3 of 4 search warrant requests for Netanyahu aides’ phones

Judge finds that police based bids on material found in previous, illegal review of devices, during investigation of alleged harassment of state witness against PM

Ofer Golan, Likud campaign manager and Netanyahu family spokesman, arrives at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem on March 20, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Ofer Golan, Likud campaign manager and Netanyahu family spokesman, arrives at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem on March 20, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Police cannot search the cellphones of three aides to Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu because the warrant requests were based on evidence obtained through previous unauthorized reviews of the devices, the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court ruled Sunday.

However, Judge Ala Masarwa ruled, police can carry out a limited search of the phone of Netanyahu campaign manager Ofer Golan.

The ruling means police cannot search the phones of Likud spokesman Jonatan Urich or party officials Yossi Shalom and Yisrael Einhorn, who argued the warrants were based on information obtained in allegedly illegal police searches of their phones.

The aides are suspected of harassing state witness Shlomo Filber, a former Likud campaign manager and longtime confidant to Netanyahu.

Sunday’s ruling was a reversal of an earlier decision by the court to approve searches of all the phones.

The Likud party said in a statement that the court outcome was “a victory” for the prime minister’s aides and that attorneys would appeal the warrant granted in Golan’s case.

The aides’ legal team said in the statement the ruling “should be the last nail [in the coffin] that should lead to closing the case against the prime minister’s aides.”

(R-L) Ofer Golan, Likud campaign manager, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, digital adviser Topaz Luk and Likud spokesman Jonatan Urich at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem on March 20, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Explaining his decision, Masarwa said that he came to the conclusion “that there is an inextricable link between the illegal search results and the subsequent requests for judicial search warrants.”

In the case of Golan, though, it was possible to separate between the two, he said.

“There is no concern that the order sought in his case is intended to retroactively legalize a search that was performed illegally,” Masarwa said.

Urich and Golan had appealed against the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court previous ruling approving searches of all four of the aides’ phones.

Last month, the Supreme Court instructed the magistrate’s court to take another look at the search warrant requests and consider if they were based on information that was obtained through unauthorized searches. If police were using the material from those searches to justify the warrants, they should be canceled, the Supreme Court said.

Filber, who was allegedly harassed by Netanyahu’s aides, is a key witness in Case 4000, in which the prime minister is said to have advanced regulatory decisions benefiting Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in telecom giant Bezeq, in exchange for positive coverage from the Elovitch-owned Walla news site. Filber was then director-general of the Communications Ministry, which Netanyahu headed as minister during part of the period under scrutiny by prosecutors.

Filber was arrested and questioned over his involvement in the case before turning state’s witness.

The Likud officials are suspected of sending a van to Filber’s home with loudspeakers, blasting allegations he lied about the case.

Former Communications Ministry director-general Shlomo Filber arrives for a hearing at the Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s Court on February 18, 2018. (Flash90)

The search of the phones has been strongly criticized by Likud politicians and the prime minister himself, who called it “a terror attack against Israeli democracy and every citizen’s right to privacy.”

Senior Likud members have recently stepped up their accusations that Netanyahu is being unfairly pursued by the legal system in a trio of criminal cases against him.

In addition to Case 4000, in which Netanyahu has been charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, he is also accused of the latter two offenses in two other cases against him.

Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing and claims to be the victim of a witch hunt involving the opposition, the media, the police and state prosecutors. The attorney general announced late last year that Netanyahu will stand trial and revealed the indictment against him.

The prime minister has been seeking to avoid prosecution by triggering parliamentary immunity.

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