Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Gilad Erdan testified Monday in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial over accusations the premier received benefits in return for helping to scrap a reform that would have harmed the Bezeq telecommunications company.
Erdan told the court that the prime minister had never given him instructions regarding Bezeq, but that he had the feeling he was removed from the his post as communications minister over the issue.
In Case 4000, one of three against the former premier, Netanyahu is charged with illicitly and lucratively benefiting the business interests of Bezeq’s controlling shareholder, Shaul Elovitch, in exchange for positive coverage on the Elovitch-owned Walla news website. He is accused of abusing his powers when he served as both prime minister and communications minister from 2014 to 2017.
Netanyahu faces charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust, while Elovitch and his wife have been charged with bribery. All three defendants deny wrongdoing.
The allegations of misconduct go back to when Netanyahu replaced Erdan as communications minister in November 2014, in what critics saw as a power grab to give him increased influence over the media and telecom companies.
Netanyahu appointed Erdan as ambassador to the UN in 2020 in a move that was widely seen as shifting a Likud rival out of the domestic political sphere.
Testifying Monday, Erdan said that during his time as communications minister Netanyahu had only approached him once regarding the Bezeq issue.
Ministry officials under Erdan were advancing a radical reform of the Israeli telecommunications industry that would have opened up the internet market, overwhelmingly controlled by Bezeq, to competition, and that aimed to ensure the efficient and speedy rollout of cutting-edge internet infrastructure.
They were also opposed to Bezeq’s purchase of the Yes satellite broadcaster from Elovitch’s Eurocom Group, which the businessman stood to earn substantially from.
“He asked me if I was listening to the claims from Bezeq,” Erdan said. “I did not get the impression that he knew the details, I did not go into details with him, I just told him that I had heard their side.”
Erdan said he did not find Netanyahu’s question to be “irregular.”
Asked how he interpreted the question, Erdan replied: “I thought that Shaul and the Bezeq people were crying to everyone.”
He noted that “I did not receive any instructions from the prime minister.”
Erdan told the court that he had supported the reforms. “I believed in it. It was the central reform for us,” Erdan said.
Erdan also told the court that when he was appointed interior minister, he had asked Netanyahu if he could also stay on as communications minister. But Netanyahu refused, telling him it would create political problems in Likud.
Erdan was asked about comments he had made previously linking the termination of his time as communications minister to Elovitch.
Erdan acknowledged making the remarks to several people, but said it was “based on a feeling that I developed, not on anything I knew from anyone.”
Netanyahu then took over as communications minister.
The indictment claims the move, as well as Netanyahu’s insistence that the 2015 coalition agreements include a provision giving him “sole control” over media matters, was aimed at creating a less confrontational stance vis-à-vis Bezeq.
After taking over as minister, Netanyahu fired director general Avi Berger in May 2015, and appointed long-time ally and former campaign manager Shlomo Filber in his stead.
Berger has testified in the trial that he was fired for refusing to approve the Bezeq-Yes merger.
In addition to pushing to approve the merger with Yes, prosecutors allege that Netanyahu gave Bezeq significant preferential treatment in other regulatory decisions.
For example, in 2014, Israel launched a wholesale market reform to open up the fixed-line telephony and internet market, dominated by Bezeq, to competition. According to the planned reform, as described by the indictment, by March 2017 Bezeq was supposed to lease out its infrastructure to telecom competitors such as Partner Communications Co. and Cellcom so they could provide competing fixed-line and internet services. With Filber overseeing the implementation, Bezeq reneged on its obligation.
Allegedly at the behest of Netanyahu, Filber started hindering the rollout of the reform. Bezeq was no longer threatened with fines for not adhering to the timetable for the reform. And, the charge sheet continues, neither did Filber approve the administrative orders necessary to advance the process — such as setting out the procedures by which the various telecom operators should interact with each other in sharing infrastructure.
As a result, the deployment of high-speed fiber-optic cables that would have given millions of Israelis infrastructure for cheaper and faster internet, and ensured Israel’s capacity to maintain a global competitive edge, was significantly slowed.
In addition to Case 4000, Netanyahu is also on trial for two additional counts of fraud and breach of trust in Case 1000, which concerns gifts he allegedly inappropriately received from billionaire benefactors, and Case 2000, in which the former prime minister allegedly negotiated to trade positive media coverage for an attempt to curtail a newspaper’s competitors.
Netanyahu has said he is the victim of a wide-ranging conspiracy and called the allegations baseless.