Shlomo Filber, the former director-general of the Communications Ministry and longtime confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who this week turned state witness in the Bezeq corruption investigation, reportedly told police during questioning that he was once fired from his position as chief of staff of Netanyahu’s office for not allowing the premier to keep an expensive watch given to him by Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.
According to his associates, Filber told police on Tuesday that he accompanied the prime minister and his wife, Sara, to Italy on an official state visit several years ago, Hadashot news reported Wednesday. After their meetings with Berlusconi, Filber said the Italian leader gifted the Netanyahus a Bulgari watch valued at some NIS 6,000 (about $1,700).
“I told them: ‘You can’t keep this watch; give it to me so I can report it properly,'” Filber told his associates, relaying his testimony to police investigators, according to Hadashot news. “Later that night I was summoned to the Netanyahus’ room, where Sara yelled at me, demanding that I return the watch to them,” Filber continued, his associates told Hadashot.
Civil service protocol mandates that all expensive gifts be declared and turned over to the state to avoid the appearance of corruption.
“I was startled by it but I told her she couldn’t have it back, that it was too late because I had already registered it as a gift and sent it back to Israel via diplomatic pouch.”
“She was screaming at me in front on Netanyahu, who didn’t say a thing,” he reportedly told them.”
“Two weeks later, Netanyahu called me in for a meeting and fired me,” Filber said. “[Netanyahu] said he needed someone that was more professional than me.”
He went on, according to the TV report: “To this day, I’m persona non grata to Sara. Over the years she hasn’t forgiven me. This is what it’s like to work for the Netanyahus,” he said.
Filber added that when he began working for the prime minister, it was “made clear to me that I had to follow instructions. If you don’t do what you’re told, they’ll take your head off.”
Netanyahu later Wednesday tweeted a copy of a small newspaper article from the time recounting the incident and describing how Netanyahu voluntarily gave up the watch and told Berlusconi he couldn’t accept it.
To which Berlusconi reportedly responded: “That’s your problem in Israel.”
Despite allegedly falling out with Sara, Filber remained close to the prime minister and was rewarded with the position of director general of the Communications Ministry after heading the successful 2015 Likud election campaign.
The story of the watch echoes other allegations against the Netanyahus, particularly Case 1000 in which Netanyahu and his wife are alleged to have received illicit gifts from billionaire benefactors, most notably the Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, totaling NIS 1 million ($282,000). In return, Netanyahu is alleged by police to have intervened on Milchan’s behalf in matters relating to legislation, business dealings, and visa arrangements.
The Bezeq probe
Crucially for the current case facing him, Filber also told police according to Hadashot news, that Netanyahu explicitly told him to show favoritism to Bezeq, and that his tenure at the Communications Ministry left him feeling like a patsy.
“At first I believed that Netanyahu gave me the job because he appreciated me, but now I understand that I was brought in to serve as a pawn in a larger game,” Filber said.
“After the elections, I didn’t even expect to get the job, but [Netanyahu] suggested that I be the director-general of the Ministry of Communications,” he said. “People close to me warned me not to take it, but for me managing a ministry under [Netanyahu] was a dream come true. I saw it as a mission.”
“I carried out explicit instructions from Netanyahu; none of it was at my discretion,” he reportedly said. “I received detailed instructions from him. I was a prisoner.”
“I understand that they exploited me,” Filber further said, according to the TV report. “I didn’t initiate any of this. All of this was planned even before my appointment to the ministry, and so I have failed.”
Filber reportedly told associates he gave a “very detailed” account to police in his questioning on Tuesday.
Filber struck a deal with police in the early hours of Wednesday morning that will see him avoid jail in return for his testimony against Netanyahu in the Bezeq corruption investigation.
Under the deal, Filber has reportedly agreed to confess to conduct unbecoming a public official and face a disciplinary hearing by the Civil Service Commission. He also will agreed to a lifetime ban from working in the civil service sector, Hadashot news reported earlier this week.
Filber has reportedly agreed to testify that he was instructed by Netanyahu to provide regulatory benefits to telephone company Bezeq in exchange for Bezeq’s chief shareholder, Shaul Elovitch, giving Netanyahu and his family positive coverage on the Walla news site, which Elovitch owns.
On Wednesday, Filber’s associates told Hadashot news how police investigators convinced him to turn on Netanyahu.
They said that Filber wept when investigators told him he would never recover from such a scandal, and that he signed the agreement with “a very heavy heart.”
“He told us the last thing he wanted to do was hurt Netanyahu, but when the interrogators put up a mirror in front of him, he knew he had no other option.”