Former Communications Ministry director-general Shlomo Filber on Wednesday took the stand to begin long-awaited testimony in former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial in Jerusalem, and said his former boss had wanted him to “mitigate” competition for the Bezeq telecom company, a move worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Netanyahu, who is generally absent from the court sessions in his trial, arrived at the Jerusalem District Court on Wednesday for Filber’s testimony, accompanied by his legal team and son Avner.
Filber, once one of Netanyahu’s closest aides, is believed to be an essential piece of the prosecution’s case against him in Case 4000, in which the now-opposition chairman is charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Case 4000 is the most serious of the three cases against the former prime minister. Netanyahu is alleged to have advanced regulatory decisions as communications minister and prime minister that immensely benefited Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in Bezeq, the country’s largest telecommunications firm, despite opposition from Communication Ministry officials. In exchange, Netanyahu allegedly was given what amounted to editorial control over Elovitch’s Walla news site. Netanyahu denies all the charges against him.
“I admired him from a very young age, one of the greatest leaders we had; I think so even today,” Filber said of the former premier. He said he has known Netanyahu “for almost 25 years, we have good professional chemistry, but we never developed social ties beyond that.”
Like an earlier witness who is also an aide-turned-state witness, Nir Hefetz, Filber described the former premier as image-obsessed.
“Netanyahu is hands-off, lets you do your work, he doesn’t get involved in the details. Except when it has to do with things that really matter to him — like media,” Filber testified, with Netanyahu and members of his family a few feet away in the small courtroom. “In those cases I could get five to six calls a day.”
He also told prosecutors that he never lied during any of his police interrogations in the case. Filber had testified to police of meetings he held with Hefetz during which the latter passed along messages on Netanyahu’s behalf regarding Bezeq.
Netanyahu and his associates have accused Filber of changing his testimony to police investigators on several occasions.
Addressing those inconsistencies, Filber said that in later interrogations by police, he “was in a different universe.”
“There was a big alliance between these two big men [Netanyahu and Elovitch], and the two of them are toying with me,” he told the court. “When I signed the plea deal I decided I would tell the full truth.”
Filber went on to describe what came to be known as the “meeting of the couches,” during which, according to the prosecution, Netanyahu gave an order to take a significantly preferential approach in regards to Elovitch in various regulatory decisions.
“I met with [Netanyahu] immediately after [my] appointment [as director general] at the request of his office,” Filber recounted.
“I got up to leave, and he stands up and says to me, ‘Elovitch approached me [saying that] there are problems at the ministry and that there’s a consulting firm that set incorrect prices [for providers that paid to use Bezeq’s infrastructure]. Look into it,'” he recalled Netanyahu saying. “‘Don’t eliminate the competition, but see if you can mitigate the prices,’ and he made a kind of hand movement. He said, ‘There’s also the subject of telephone service and add [to that] the Bezeq-YES merger.’ We said our goodbyes and left.”
In further testimony Wednesday, Filber criticized the police and the judiciary for how they handled the case.
“I tried to explain the complexity [of the situation] to the police investigators, but they did not want to hear,” Filber said. “They did not want to get the full picture from me – just ‘yes or no.’”
Filber said that “I wanted to do good for the State of Israel, I ruined six years of my life on this investigation.” He called the police detectives who investigated him “two Rottweilers.”
“They brought this case to me, they’re ruining people’s lives.”
Filber led Netanyahu’s successful election campaign in 2015, when his Likud party won the most seats in the Knesset and formed a solidly right-wing coalition that would go on to hold power for four years. Filber was then appointed Communications Ministry director-general and oversaw the merger of Bezeq with the YES satellite TV company.
His testimony is seen as key to establishing the alleged illicit dealings Netanyahu had with Elovitch, and his efforts to influence policy to benefit the latter.
Filber’s testimony has repeatedly been delayed, most recently amid claims that police improperly hacked into his phone to spy on him.
Prosecutors and investigators, after looking onto allegations of illicit hacking by police, concluded that officers utilized spyware to access Filber’s phone, but that it was done with judicial oversight.
In addition to charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in Case 4000, Netanyahu also faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in Case 1000 and in Case 2000. He denies wrongdoing and has claimed, without providing evidence, that the charges were fabricated in a political witch hunt led by the police and state prosecution.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.