Netanyahu’s defense in the Bezeq probe is part of the case against him
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Netanyahu’s defense in the Bezeq probe is part of the case against him

PM says he merely signed off on recommendations from officials in the Communications Ministry, whose former director general has turned state's witness against him

Raoul Wootliff

Raoul Wootliff covers politics, corruption and crime for The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the weekly government conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on July 1, 2018. (Ohad Zwigenberg/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the weekly government conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on July 1, 2018. (Ohad Zwigenberg/POOL)

Finishing his tenth police interrogation in two and a half onerous years as a criminal suspect, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday launched a new line of defense to deny the corruption allegations against him in the Bezeq graft probe, known as Case 4000, one of three high-profile investigations he has been linked to.

Suspected of advancing regulatory decisions benefiting Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in the country’s largest telecommunications firm, in exchange for positive coverage from Elovitch’s Walla news site, Netanyahu said that nothing illicit could have taken place because he wasn’t the one making the decisions.

“There is not one case that was presented to the prime minister in which — as minister of communications — he did not sign the recommendations of the professionals. And so he did in this case as well,” a statement released by the prime minister’s family spokesman said of the time Netanyahu served as communications minister between 2014 and 2017, during which the ministry approved Bezeq’s acquisition of Yes, a satellite TV provider.

On Wednesday, documents that the prime minister presented to investigators apparently proving his claim, including one in which the Communication Ministry’s legal counsel Dana Neufeld expressed explicit support for the sale of Yes to Bezeq, were leaked to Hadashot news.

The offices of Bezeq, the country’s largest telecom group. (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

According to Netanyahu, if he was just signing decisions already made by civil servants, then he couldn’t possibly be accused of being behind an illicit quid-pro-quo deal. Even if it is found that Walla provided him with unusually positive coverage, a claim he also denies, he can’t have been involved in bribery because he didn’t make the decisions. There may be quid (in the form of media coverage) but there is certainly no quo, his claims suggest.

Furthermore, the line of defense implies, “you may not trust me but at least trust the ministry officials.”

The problem for Netanyahu is that police evidently do trust the ministry officials.

In fact, they are apparently basing the crux of their case on the most senior of them: Shlomo Filber, a former director general of the ministry and long-time Netanyahu loyalist, who also happens to have turned state’s witness against him.

Much media focus has gone to Nir Hefetz, another former close confidant of Netanyahu who has gone on to become a witness against him. He can apparently provide police with information allegedly proving that the prime minster and Elovitch conspired to give the premier better coverage on Walla.

But to uncover the decision-making process behind the regulatory benefits allegedly given to Bezeq, Filber may be the key.

Filber, also a suspect in Case 4000, signed a plea deal with prosecutors in February to give testimony against his former boss in return for an apparent promise that he would not serve jail time.

That testimony, along with the testimony from Hefetz, could be crucial in proving that while Netanyahu may have indeed been signing off on ministry decisions, he was at the same time giving the instructions to Filber to make those decisions.

Former Communications Ministry Director-General Shlomo Filber arrives for a hearing at the Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s Court on February 18, 2018. (Flash90)

The allegations of misconduct go back to when Netanyahu replaced Gilad Erdan as communications minister in November 2014 in what critics saw as a power grab to give him increased control over the media and telecom industries. He subsequently fired then-director-general Avi Berger over the phone in May 2015 and appointed Filber in Berger’s stead.

The move, as well as Netanyahu’s insistence that the 2015 coalition agreements include a provision giving him “sole control” over media matters, immediately raised eyebrows and was perceived by analysts as a signal Netanyahu was looking for a less confrontational stance vis-à-vis Bezeq, whose power Berger had sought to curtail.

After his appointment, Filber was at the center of numerous controversial initiatives led by Netanyahu affecting Israel’s media market. Those included an attempt to overhaul a massive reform put in place by former communications minister Erdan to revamp Israel’s public broadcaster, and extensive efforts to transform a number of commercial media outlets, which police — in indictment recommendations against Netanyahu in another case — said may have constituted bribery.

After the media uncovered a possible conflict of interest between Netanyahu and Elovitch in October 2015, the prime minister was instructed by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit not to involve himself in any decisions about Bezeq. Instead, Filber took the lead.

Under his watch, Bezeq appeared to be given preferential treatment.

For example, in 2014 Israel launched a wholesale market reform to open up the fixed-line telephony and internet market, dominated by Bezeq, to competition. According to the plan, 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.

Last year, following an Israel Securities Authority (ISA) investigation, it was announced that Filber was suspected of making illicit deals with Elovitch, one of which included helping Bezeq buy the satellite cable provider Yes, overriding antitrust issues raised by ministry officials. Investigators reportedly believe Filber favored Bezeq in his decisions by withholding information from professional civil servants and legal advisers at the ministry and transferring to Bezeq confidential documents, including internal position papers.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) sitting with then-PMO chief of staff Shlomo Filber; Filber signed an agreement to act as a state’s witness, apparently to testify against Netanyahu on February 21, 2018. (Screenshot/Hadashot news)

That investigation alleged that Elovitch had made NIS 170 million ($48 million) illegally in a business deal Bezeq made with Yes, the ISA said in a statement at the time, adding that it had uncovered evidence Bezeq received insider information from the Communications Ministry, and also worked with the director of the ministry to influence decisions so that Bezeq would benefit.

Case 4000 is focused on whether favors, such as positive coverage from Walla for Netanyahu, were reciprocated.

When Filber was implicated and forced to go on leave from the Communications Ministry, many raised questions about how it could be that Netanyahu was not involved, or did not know about his director-general’s actions, given his personal involvement in much of the ministry’s activities.

If Filber, as state’s witness, testifies that Netanyahu was in fact behind or involved in the Bezeq deals, then the accusations and suspicions hitherto leveled against Filber would be turned on the prime minister.

That would mean police may be able to prove that Netanyahu not only signed off on ministry decisions, but made them in the first place.

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