Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly continued to be involved in making policies that affected the business dealings of companies owned by a friend of his, Bezeq majority shareholder Shaul Elovitch, even after the attorney general warned him against doing so.
Suspects in a sprawling corruption probe involving Bezeq and close Netanyahu aides told investigators that prime minister did not sever professional ties to Elovitch despite Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s urging, and continued his active involvement in the affairs of Bezeq, YES, Pelephone, Walla and the Eurocom Group, the Kan public broadcaster reported on Tuesday.
Elovitch is the controlling shareholder in Bezeq (which owns cellphone company Pelephone and cable TV provider YES), the owner of the Walla news site and private holding firm Eurocom Group.
In June 2016, Mandelblit submitted a legal option to Netanyahu, urging him to distance himself from companies owned in part by Elovitch, citing conflict of interest concerns.
The quickly ballooning corruption investigation, known as Case 4000, involves suspicions that Elovitch ordered Walla to grant fawning coverage to Netanyahu and his family in exchange for the prime minister advancing regulations benefiting Elovitch.
Netanyahu served as communications minister from November 2014 to February 2017. During that time, Walla’s coverage notably changed to favor the Netanyahu family, and Bezeq was given permission, among other things, to buy YES, overriding antitrust issues, and to renege on its commitment to lease out its infrastructure to telecom competitors so they could provide competing fixed line and internet services.
State prosecutors this week told the court the policy benefits given to Elovitch and Bezeq were worth up to a billion shekels ($290 million).
On Tuesday, the Haaretz daily reported that Bezeq officials were aware of the risks that a quid pro quo agreement with the prime minister entailed, and last year when reports of a possible investigation began to pick up, Elovitch asked Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua to delete all their correspondence, in an apparent bid to destroy incriminating evidence.
Yeshua did not comply with Elovitch’s request, and when the Israel Securities Authority opened the initial probe into the company’s alleged corrupt practices last year, he handed over all of their correspondence to investigators.
According to the report, police and the ISA are in possession of emails, text messages and recorded phone conversations between the two. The exchanges allegedly link the pro-Netanyahu coverage to decisions made by the Communications Ministry benefiting Bezeq.
On Monday, the Tel Aviv District Court released to house arrest four suspects in the case — Elovitch’s wife, Iris; his son, Or; Bezeq CEO Stella Handler; and Bezeq’s deputy CEO for business development, Amikam Shorer. At the same hearing, the judge ruled to keep Elovitch and former adviser to the prime minister, Nir Hefetz in custody until Sunday.
In a first official on-record statement implicating him in the investigation, Netanyahu was named by the ISA on Tuesday as one of the people believed to have been involved in bribery as part of the alleged deal.
A source familiar with the various investigations told The Times of Israel this week that it is “likely” investigators would summon the prime minister for questioning on Case 4000 this Friday, Purim in Jerusalem, possibly even under caution, which would mean that they were treating him as a suspect.
Netanyahu has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.