A key witness in the graft trial against former prime minister MK Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to cast doubt on his own testimony Tuesday, leading the former prime minister to celebrate the “death” of the most serious of three cases he is charged in.
The semi-about-face from former Communications Ministry director-general Shlomo Filber was the latest twist in a cross-examination that has already seen him make several hairpin turns. His shifting recollections have frustrated the prosecution, which had relied on his testimony to undergird its allegations that Netanyahu traded regulatory approval of a merger for control over how he and his family were portrayed by a popular news site.
Evidence from Filber, a Netanyahu associate who turned state witness, is an essential element of the prosecution’s charges in Case 4000, in which Netanyahu is accused of providing lucrative benefits to Shaul Elovitch, then-owner of Bezeq and the Walla news site, in exchange for favorable coverage.
Filber told the court Tuesday that details he gave police interrogators regarding a meeting with Netanyahu may have actually been from a meeting with Elovitch, the Bezeq controlling shareholder at the time, who was seeking an okay to merge with the Yes satellite TV provider. The businessman is accused of giving Netanyahu ultimate say over how the-then prime minister was covered by the Walla news site.
Filber had initially said notes from the meeting, which included the graft scheme, were a record of what Netanyahu had asked for.
But on the stand Tuesday, he admitted to defense lawyer Boaz Ben Zur that it was “entirely plausible” that the notes detailed requests from a meeting with Elovitch, which he was supposed to have brought up in a later meeting with Netanyahu.
Ben Zur had suggested that meeting notes written under the name “Elovitch” had recorded what the telecom mogul had said, and not what was said about him in the subsequent meeting with Netanyahu, as Filber had told police.
“It makes sense,” Filber said. “If it says Elovitch, it’s a quote from Elovitch.”
“That’s more orderly than what went through my head during the interrogation,” he said. “If you ask me if I can say for sure, no. But it makes sense. It’s more plausible than what I said during [police] questioning.”
Netanyahu, who was present in the courtroom, said elatedly, in English, after Filber’s testimony, “It’s incredible.”
The defendant, now opposition leader in the Knesset, later took to social media to claim that Case 4000 “is dead.”
“Today it was proven that the prosecution’s ‘golden evidence’ — paper on which Filber seemingly wrote Netanyahu’s instructions after meeting with him — was in fact written before Filber met with Netanyahu,” said a statement posted on Netanyahu’s official Facebook page.
The post further claimed that it was now proven that for years evidence exonerating Netanyahu had been kept hidden from Filber and the court.
“Instead of closing the case, the prosecution for the fourth time changed the indictment,” the statement charged.
During the cross-examination, Ben Zur also suggested that notes jotted down by Filber were not in chronological order, a claim that could throw the prosecution’s version of events into disarray.
“It’s not chronological. It’s more associative,” Filber agreed.
Filber was back in court on Wednesday for further cross-examination. Though Netanyahu was not present at the start of the session he was expected to join it later, Hebrew media reported.
Apparent changes to Filber’s testimony have taken place during several hearings so far.
Asked by Netanyahu’s lawyers last week about a specific meeting with the former prime minister upon beginning his role as director of the Communications Ministry, Filber acknowledged he may have misinterpreted a hand gesture made by Netanyahu.
During an early investigation carried out by the Securities Authority in 2017, Filber said he understood the gesture as meaning “drop the whole thing,” in the sense of “tell Elovitch we can’t help him.”
However, later when being questioned by police, Filber told officers he understood the gesture as “you should moderately lower prices,” which is what the prosecution claims Elovitch had asked Filber to do in order to limit the competition Bezeq faced from other communications companies.
Filber then testified last week that his original testimony given to the Securities Authority might be correct, saying it was a matter of “interpretation.”
In a sign of yet another setback for the prosecution, on Sunday it requested that the indictment be altered to state that the alleged meeting was held “after defendant Netanyahu decided on Filber’s appointment” as director-general and not after he had already been appointed to the post as was originally claimed.
Following Tuesday’s hearing, Netanyahu wrote on Twitter, “It was proven in court today that Netanyahu did not instruct Filber to help Elovitch or promote the Bezeq-Yes merger.”
“The case was based on the claim that Netanyahu had a meeting with Filber after his appointment, in which he instructed him to help Elovitch. Last week, Adv. Boaz Ben Zur proved that the meeting did not take place at the time the prosecution claimed. A paper in which Filber allegedly wrote Netanyahu’s instructions after the meeting with him — was written before Filber met with Netanyahu.”
Case 4000 is considered the most serious of the three cases against the former prime minister, who faces charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Netanyahu is alleged to have advanced regulatory decisions as communications minister and prime minister that immensely benefited Bezeq — the country’s largest telecommunications firm — and its owner Elovitch, despite opposition from Communication Ministry officials. In exchange, he allegedly was given what amounted to editorial control over Elovitch’s Walla news site.
Netanyahu is also on trial in two other corruption cases, facing charges of fraud and breach of trust in Case 1000 and in Case 2000. He denies wrongdoing and says the charges were fabricated in a political coup led by the police and state prosecution.