National security adviser gives testimony in Netanyahu graft trial

Tzachi Hanegbi, who was acting communications minister during period covered in Case 4000, says merger of Bezeq and Yes at heart of allegations was right course of action

National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi arrives for a court hearing in the trial against Benjamin Netanyahu, at the District Court in Jerusalem on March 5, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi arrives for a court hearing in the trial against Benjamin Netanyahu, at the District Court in Jerusalem on March 5, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi took the stand on Tuesday for cross-examination by defense attorneys in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial.

Hanegbi is testifying in Case 4000, the most serious of the cases against the prime minister, in which he’s accused of advancing regulatory decisions benefiting Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in telecom giant Bezeq, in exchange for positive coverage from the Elovitch-owned Walla news site.

Much of the cross-examination centered around the actions of Shlomo Filber, a former Netanyahu associate who turned key state witness, and whose testimonies have been problematic for the prosecution during the trial. Filber served as the director-general of the Communications Ministry, which Netanyahu headed as minister during part of the period under scrutiny by prosecutors from 2014 to 2017.

Filber is alleged to have overseen the details of regulatory decisions that would favor Elovitch, including the promotion of a merger between Bezeq and the Yes satellite TV company.

In his testimony Tuesday, Hanegbi said he thought highly of Filber and of his approach to the deal.

“Filber was a dominant figure in the ministry. I thought he had a professional understanding that in my opinion was appropriate. I was impressed by his seriousness in the position,” he said. Under an agreement between the prosecution and defense, Hanegbi’s testimony to the Securities Authority was submitted directly to the court and he was spared further questioning by prosecution attorneys.”

Shlomo Filber, former director-general of the Communications Ministry, at a court hearing in the trial against Benjamin Netanyahu, at the District Court in Jerusalem, on June 1, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In explaining Filber’s approach to an agreement between Bezeq and Yes, Hanegbi said that if either party didn’t agree with the ministry’s final decision on the matter, they would just go to court “and the whole process would have been frozen. Therefore, the right thing to do was to reach an agreement.”

Hanegbi said Filber pushed positive developments while serving as the director-general, including the deployment of fiber optic networks. However, he acknowledged that he did not know all the details surrounding allegations that Filber had secret contact with Bezeq executives throughout the developing agreement to work out favorable conditions.

Jacques Chen, representing Elovich and his wife, Iris Elovich, asked Hanegbi about Filber’s communication with him during that time and whether Filber had informed him of the details of all his meetings with Yes and Bezeq executives. Chen strove to show that it was natural and that “you don’t assume that if he didn’t share it with you, it shows he was hiding it from you.”

Hanegbi agreed with the assertion and confirmed that Filber did not share every detail of “whom he meets and where he met.”

He added that he “did not identify any extraneous considerations in Filber’s work.”

“I took a temporary position,” Hanegbi said. “[Filber] was there before me and I knew he would remain after me as well. He was the dominant figure throughout the period and had already formulated his policy. He consulted [with me] and brought me information, but knew that I intended to leave and that I would not go into every detail.”

In addition to pushing to approve the merger with Yes, prosecutors allege that Netanyahu gave Bezeq significant preferential treatment in other regulatory decisions.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen at the Jerusalem District Court for the testimony in his corruption trial of businessman Arnon Milchan’s, July 6, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

For example, in 2014, Israel launched a wholesale market reform to open up to competition the fixed-line telephony and internet market, dominated by Bezeq. According to the planned reform, as described by the indictment, by March 2017, Bezeq was supposed to lease out its infrastructure to telecom competitors such as Partner Communications Co. and Cellcom so they could provide competing fixed-line and internet services. With Filber overseeing the implementation, Bezeq reneged on its obligation.

Allegedly at the behest of Netanyahu, Filber started hindering the rollout of the reform. Bezeq was no longer threatened with fines for not adhering to the timetable for the reform. And, the charge sheet continues, neither did Filber approve the administrative orders necessary to advance the process — such as setting out the procedures by which the various telecom operators should interact with each other in sharing infrastructure.

As a result, the deployment of high-speed fiber-optic cables that would have given millions of Israelis infrastructure for cheaper and faster internet, and ensured the country’s capacity to maintain a global competitive edge, was significantly slowed.

When he appeared in court last year, Filber’s testimony on these matters was viewed as vastly different from the account he gave earlier to investigators. The prosecution at one point sought to declare Filber a hostile witness due to the discrepancies and shifting accounts.

The prosecution maintains that despite Filber’s differing versions of events, the allegations still stand.

In addition to Case 4000, Netanyahu is also on trial for two additional counts of fraud and breach of trust in Case 1000, which concerns gifts he allegedly inappropriately received from billionaire benefactors, and Case 2000, in which the former prime minister allegedly negotiated to obtain positive media coverage in a newspaper in exchange for curtailing its competitors.

Netanyahu has said he is the victim of a wide-ranging conspiracy and has called the allegations baseless.

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