Justice Ministry appears to chide PM after leaked tape reveals media meddling

Statement doesn’t mention damning recording of Netanyahu berating then-communications minister Kara, but says conflict of interest guidelines issued by AG in 2016 still in effect

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (L) and then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit at the weekly government conference, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on December 13, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (L) and then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit at the weekly government conference, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on December 13, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Justice Ministry on Tuesday appeared to criticize Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after damning recordings were broadcast of him actively intervening in media affairs after he was forced to give up the communications portfolio.

“It has been made clear that the conflict of interest arrangements that were drafted while Netanyahu was still minister of communications are still in place, even while dealing with issues pertaining to the Ministry of Communications,” a ministry statement said.

The statement did not explicitly mention the recording of him yelling at then-communications minister Ayoub Kara to push legislation through the Knesset, but underscored that Netanyahu was still bound by a conflict of interest arrangement drawn up by the attorney general in 2016.

Netanyahu resigned as communications minister in early 2017 and appointed Kara as his replacement due to a corruption investigation into his dealings with media outlets.

The agreement drawn up by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit bared him from dealing with the issues that concern Bezeq controlling shareholder Shaul Elovitch, whose ties with the prime minister are at the center of one of three graft cases the premier is a suspect in.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) with former communications minister Ayoub Kara at a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset, on May 7, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The Justice Ministry also said it previously gave Netanyahu a legal opinion recommending he refrain from dealing with issues affecting his friends or business associates, unless he consulted Mandelblit beforehand.

On Monday, Channel 13 published a recording of Netanyahu screaming at Kara, insulting him and demanding that he shutter the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Council, the public body that oversees cable and satellite stations in Israel.

The recording suggested Netanyahu was still intimately involved in directing matters at the Communications Ministry in late 2017, despite having relinquished the communications portfolio earlier that year amid an ongoing criminal investigation into his alleged collusion with major media outlets.

The council also oversees the satellite television provider Yes. Netanyahu is suspected of having pushed former Communications Ministry director general Shlomo Filber to approve a merger of Yes with telecom giant Bezeq, a development that eventually went through, earning Bezeq owner Shaul Elovitch hundreds of millions of dollars.

In that case, Netanyahu is suspected of an illicit quid pro quo, in which Elovitch ensured favorable coverage of Netanyahu at Walla, Israel’s second-largest news site, which he also owned, in return for the prime minister’s intervention in regulatory matters.

In the recording, Netanyahu can be heard demanding that Kara “save” the right-wing Channel 20, which lost its bid to produce, manage, and broadcast the Knesset channel following a court appeal by competitors in late 2017. “They’re not allowing it to broadcast news [programs],” Netanyahu says bitterly about restrictions that Channel 20 was facing.

Shaul Elovitch arrives at the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court for a remand hearing in Case 4000, February 26, 2018. (Flash90)

He also verbally abuses Kara, screaming “have you lost it?” in a harsh tone when the Druze politician describes efforts to collaborate with then-justice minister Ayelet Shaked. Shaked, who currently heads the Yamina party, used to be close to Netanyahu but the two had a falling out.

Long a staunch Netanyahu loyalist, Kara nonetheless lost the prime minister’s backing before the Likud party primaries in February, for reasons that remain unclear, and failed to get a high enough spot on the party’s slate to enter the Knesset. He later reportedly lashed out at some party members as “Nazis” — a term he denied using — before quitting his ministerial post in June and accusing the ruling party of prejudice against the Druze community.

Kara reacted to the report by calling it “despicable,” calling for a thorough investigation to weed out the “mole” and “evil people” behind the leak.

Likud members accused Kara of leaking the recording to Channel 13, but the former minister insisted that his or Netanyahu’s phone were hacked.

“The very fact that my phone and the prime minister’s were tapped raises the suspicion of a plot to harm me the prime minister and the right-wing government, and I will not agree to that,” he told the Kan public broadcaster on Tuesday.

Likud Knesset member Ayoub Kara at the Likud polling station in Jerusalem for the party’s primary on February 5, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Kara also filed a police compliant to find how their phone conversation was leaked.

“The Channel 13 report indented to hurt me and the prime minister,” he told reporters outside the police’s Lahav 433 headquarters in Lod.

“I will not allow it to hurt my loyalty, credibility beliefs that I have held for many years as I served the people Israel, the Likud and Prime Minister Netanyahu” he said.

Netanyahu has denied the conversation heard in the recording violated the attorney general’s guidelines, and said his defense of Channel 20 was an attempt to push back against left-wing attempts to muzzle conservative outlets.

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