Bezeq corruption probe

Media tycoon said to admit altering Netanyahu coverage at PM’s wife’s request

But Shaul Elovitch reportedly denies during interrogation that he expected regulatory favors in return for intervening in Walla news site

A composite image of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and former Bezeq controlling shareholder, Shaul Elovitch. (Flash90: Ohad Zwigenberg/POOL)
A composite image of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and former Bezeq controlling shareholder, Shaul Elovitch. (Flash90: Ohad Zwigenberg/POOL)

An Israeli business mogul suspected of an illicit quid-pro-quo deal with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reportedly admitted in his police interrogation that he personally intervened to alter content on the Walla news site, which he owns, at the request of the Netanyahu family, while denying he expected any favors in return.

Shaul Elovitch, who is also the controlling shareholder in the country’s largest telecommunications firm, Bezeq, is suspected of providing flattering coverage of the Netanyahus. In exchange, police suspect, the prime minister — who was also serving as communications minister at the time — advanced regulatory decisions benefiting Elovitch.

The case is known as the Bezeq probe, or Case 4000.

Elovitch and Netanyahu were grilled at the same time on Tuesday, with Netanyahu’s questioning at his residence lasting more than four hours.

During his interrogation, which reportedly lasted even longer, Elovitch said he had called Walla’s CEO Ilan Yeshua to change the content of news articles, adding, according to Channel 10 news: “I couldn’t ignore the pleas of [the prime minister’s wife] Sara Netanyahu and the rest of the Netanyahu family. I didn’t want to anger the prime minister. He was my regulator.

“What did you expect? That I would ignore those requests?” Elovitch reportedly told his interrogators. “But I never expected any favors in return. I didn’t talk to Netanyahu about regulatory benefits and there was no bribery deal.”

Elovitch’s attorney, Jack Chen, issued a scathing response to the TV report. “Again and again we find out that the rights of interrogees are trampled. This, again, is an unlawful, distorted leak to which we cannot respond directly since the issue is under police investigation. Of course Mr. Elovitch denies the suspicions against him and didn’t think of bribing the prime minister,” he said.

The headquarters of the Israel Police’s Lahav 433 anti-corruption unit in Lod. (Flash90)

Hebrew-language reports also provided some details on Netanyahu’s interrogation, saying the premier had presented documents purporting to show Bezeq had suffered “enormous” losses during his tenure as communications minister.

Netanyahu claimed that when he approved a deal to allow Elovitch to acquire the Yes satellite broadcast TV provider — a move that benefited the businessman — he was merely implementing the recommendations of professional committees established by his predecessor, Moshe Kahlon.

The prime minister also challenged the notion that Walla’s coverage at the time was supportive of Netanyahu and his wife, showing articles to police officials and claiming that 75 percent of the items were critical of Sara Netanyahu. He also presented text messages sent by his wife to Elovitch’s wife, Iris, which slammed Walla as “left-wing.”

“If there was a bribery deal, why didn’t Sara write what she was giving them?” the prime minister said, according to the Yedioth Ahronoth daily.

Shortly after the interrogation, a spokesperson for the Netanyahu family released a statement denying any wrongdoing and calling allegations of a deal with Elovitch “baseless.”

“Prime Minister Netanyahu never made a deal with Elovitch in exchange for sympathetic coverage,” the statement said.

Netanyahu repeated his claim that as opposed to the allegations, “Walla has consistently provided negative coverage” of the prime minister.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on July 8, 2018 (Ohad Zwigenberg/POOL)

“This negative coverage culminated in a flood of virulent articles on the eve of the 2015 elections, in an attempt to persuade the public to vote against him. This is exactly the period of time when he is accused of having allegedly made the [deal],” the statement added.

Sara Netanyahu and the couple’s son Yair have both been questioned previously in the case but did not face interrogators on Tuesday.

Tuesday’s interrogation by officers from the Lahav 433 anti-corruption police unit reportedly covered audio recordings handed over by state witness Nir Hefetz, a former senior aide to the prime minister, with Netanyahu being asked to respond to testimony given against him by a number of other key witnesses.

Evidence provided to police by Hefetz reportedly shows that mutually beneficial actions by Netanyahu and Elovitch were not incidental; rather, both parties were fully aware that they were acting as part of an illicit quid-pro-quo deal.

Netanyahu said that “nothing new was presented” to him during the interrogation. He also denied that he had provided special treatment to Bezeq or Elovitch.

The interrogation was Netanyahu’s fourth in the case and his 10th overall since the beginning of 2017, when police first questioned him regarding other corruption suspicions. He is expected to be questioned at least once more.

The state prosecution is currently considering whether to indict the prime minister in two other corruption probes, known as Case 1000 and Case 2000, after police in February recommended putting Netanyahu on trial in both.

Former media adviser to the prime minister Nir Hefetz arrives for a remand hearing in Case 4000 at the Tel Aviv District Court, February 22, 2018 (Flash90)

Hefetz, a former media adviser to the Netanyahu family, is the third confidant of the premier to turn state’s witness in the various cases against him, joining former Communications Ministry director general Shlomo Filber and former chief of staff Ari Harow.

Hefetz is said to have provided officials with further evidence in Cases 1000 and 2000 as well.

In Case 1000, in which Netanyahu and his wife are suspected of receiving illicit gifts from billionaire benefactors, Hefetz reportedly provided investigators with names of additional patrons of the couple, seemingly strengthening the case that their alleged misdeeds were part of a pattern.

In Case 2000, which involves a suspected illicit quid-pro-quo deal between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes, Hefetz was said to have provided names of additional figures involved in the conversations between the two.

Raoul Wootliff and Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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