During his questioning by police on Tuesday in the Bezeq corruption probe, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented investigators with a document which he asserted showed that his actions in the affair were above board, Hadashot news reported.
Investigators suspect Netanyahu advanced regulatory decisions benefiting Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in 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.
Netanyahu served as communications minister between 2014-2017, during which time the ministry approved Bezeq’s acquisition of Yes, a satellite TV provider.
The premier produced a letter from the ministry’s legal counsel Dana Neufeld, who Hadashot noted was a well respected figure and not a Netanyahu appointee, in which she expressed support for the sale, which is now under review.
Netanyahu reportedly told police that professionals in the ministry all supported the buyout, and that his signature was “a formality.”
According to the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, 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 allegedly said.
Elovitch and Netanyahu were grilled at the same time on Tuesday, with Netanyahu’s questioning at his residence lasting more than four hours.
According to a Channel 10 news report Wednesday, Elovitch admitted to police that he personally intervened to alter content on the Walla news site at the request of the Netanyahu family, while denying he expected any favors in return.
Elovitch reportedly said he had called Walla’s CEO Ilan Yeshua to change the content of news articles, adding, according to Channel 10: “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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.