US casino mogul Sheldon Adelson was one of the billionaire acquaintances of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu whom the premier wanted to see buy an Israeli news website that lies at the heart of a corruption case in which police have recommended that the premier be indicted for bribery, the Yedioth Ahronoth daily newspaper reported Thursday.
In addition to Adelson, who is known to be close to Netanyahu, other potential buyers of the Walla website were Australian businessman James Packer, founder of the Oracle Corporation Larry Ellison, and investor Paul T. Marinelli, the report said.
Netanyahu’s ties to Shaul Elovitch, the owner of Walla, have been the subject of an investigation known as Case 4000, in which police recommended this week that the premier be indicted. Officials believe Netanyahu advanced regulatory decisions benefiting Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in Bezeq, the country’s largest telecommunications firm — despite opposition from the Communication Ministry’s career officials — in exchange for positive coverage from Elovitch’s Walla news site.
Adelson already owns two local Israeli newspapers — the Israel Hayom free tabloid and the religious weekly Makor Rishon. The Israel Hayom paper is also linked to another, separate, corruption case against Netanyahu in which police have also recommended indictments against the prime minister.
Evidence, including testimonies obtained by police, indicated that Netanyahu was eager to see Walla bought by an acquaintance who lives abroad. He arranged tours of the Walla offices and a meeting between Elovitch and Marinelli that was held at the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem, the report said.
However, a police source told the paper that Elovitch had no real intention of selling the site, which he saw as a tool for maintaining a close relationship with Netanyhau.
Ilan Yeshua, the CEO of the news site, provided police with tapes and testimony that showed Elovitch and his family were aware to the value of holding on to the Walla website due to the connection it gave them with the prime minister.
“Even when he talked with potential buyers he was in fact playing a hidden game,” a senior police source told the paper, referring to Elovitch. “On the one hand he gave Netanyahu the appearance of trying to sell, but in practice, he torpedoed each sale to each one of the buyers and set an unrealistic high price so that the deal wont’ go through.”
Yeshua reportedly told police he knew about Elovitch’s true intentions and also made an effort to prevent a sale from going ahead.
A statement issued on behalf of the prime minister dismissed the report as based on malicious leaks.
“As expected, since the hasty publication of recommendations [to indict] we are witnesses to a flood of false and tendentious leaks whose purpose is to artificially breathe life into the hollow recommendations against the prime minister and his wife,” the statement said. “Since there is nothing in the case, they are trying to create the false impression that there is various and sundry evidence and other documents that have not been presented to the prime minister during interrogations. It’s all hot air.”
An attorney for Elovitch said in a statement: “This is a false leak from start to finish. Mr. Elovitch did not work with the prime minister to find a buyer for Walla and did not meet with him and with a prospective buyer. It is simply false. There is no such evidence that there was no such meeting. In any case, Mr. Elovitch did not play a ‘double game’ as claimed. This is fiction.”
On Sunday police said they were recommending bribery charges against both Netanyahu and his wife, Sara Netanyahu, in Case 4000, the Bezeq and Walla website corruption probe.
Investigators said they believe there is enough evidence to bring Netanyahu to trial on charges of accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust and fraudulently accepting benefits.
The Bezeq case is the most serious of the three cases in which Netanyahu has been accused. Netanyahu held the government’s communications portfolio until last year and oversaw regulation in the field. Many former journalists at Walla have attested to being pressured to refrain from negative reporting of Netanyahu.
Police said there was enough evidence to indict Shaul and Iris Elovitch, as well as Bezeq official Amirak Shorer, on charges of giving bribes, disruption of investigative and judicial proceedings, and breaking money laundering laws. They also recommended charging their son Or Elovitch and former Bezeq CEO Stella Handler with fraud and breach of trust, and Ze’ev Rubenstein, a close friend of the Netanyahu and Elovitch families and vice president of Israel Bonds, with bribery.
Netanyahu denied the allegations Sunday, accusing the police of a conspiracy against him.
Netanyahu is also a suspect in two other corruption probes, cases 1000 and 2000 — two investigations in which police have already recommended bribery indictments.
In Case 1000, the so-called “gifts scandal,” Netanyahu is suspected of “systematically” demanding benefits worth about NIS 1 million ($282,000) from billionaire benefactors, including Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and Australian resort owner James Packer, in exchange for favors.
Case 2000 involves a suspected illicit quid pro quo deal between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes that would have seen the prime minister work to weaken rival daily Israel Hayom, in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.