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Top Likud MK: It's Israel's Watergate; shut down the trial

Police phone hacking of key witness in Netanyahu case could force trial delay

Cops reportedly claim draining of Shlomo Filber’s phone data was an accident, data never given to investigators; PM’s lawyers demand answers ahead of Filber’s imminent testimony

Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) sitting with then-PMO chief of staff Shlomo Filber, on February 21, 2018 (Screenshot/Channel 12 news)
Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) sitting with then-PMO chief of staff Shlomo Filber, on February 21, 2018 (Screenshot/Channel 12 news)

The alleged draining by police of the contents of the phone of a key witness in the trial against Benjamin Netanyahu is likely to delay the legal proceedings, according to Thursday television reports.

The Jerusalem District Court will likely need to decide on Monday whether to halt Netanyahu’s trial until police and prosecutors can clarify the extent to which phone hacking was used in the cases against the former prime minister, according to Channel 12 news.

The network noted it was highly likely the trial would be delayed, though reports this week that Shlomo Filber’s phone was hacked could affect his testimony, set to begin in two weeks, and potentially impact the trial on other ways.

So far, reports have indicated that police, without the necessary approval from a judge, used spyware to drain all the data from the phone of Filber, a former director-general of the Communications Ministry and longtime confidant of Netanyahu who is a key state’s witness in Case 4000, the most serious of the cases against the former prime minister.

Attorneys for Netanyahu and other defendants in the case have demanded to know exactly what data was obtained, what use was made of it, and whether others involved in the trial were also targeted, among other questions. Prosecutors have responded that they are examining the matter.

Channel 12 reported Thursday night that Filber’s phone was accessed in 2017, and had the entirety of its content drained using unnamed spyware. The network said that the discovery that Filber’s phone had been targeted was made in the course of an unrelated investigation, ordered by the attorney general, into alleged police abuse of the controversial NSO Group’s Pegasus software, but that a different technology was used to access Filber’s phone.

Police brass reportedly told justice officials that the data was downloaded accidentally and was never given to investigators in the Netanyahu cases.

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

According to Channel 13, after news broke of police allegedly misusing Pegasus, Netanyahu’s attorneys asked the Justice Ministry if it knew of any cases of such abuse related to the former prime minister’s graft trial.

According to the report, police “misled” the ministry for two weeks when asked whether it had used penetrative tech to drain Filber’s phone, and in general, without prior approval.

Only in recent days did police say there was actually a case in which phone data was accessed from someone involved in the Netanyahu trial without approval — the case of Filber.

Criminal attorney Boaz Koenig, speaking to Channel 12, noted that in Israel, unlike the US, evidence obtained illegally is not necessarily inadmissible in court.

According to sources cited by both networks, the data from Filber’s phone never made its way to investigators.

Channel 12 on Wednesday aired barely audible voice recordings in which police investigators seemed to discuss hacking a person’s phone, just before conducting an interview with Filber.

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at the Jerusalem District Court for a hearing in his ongoing corruption trial, on November 22, 2021. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Pool)

Netanyahu on Wednesday evening called the revelations an “earthquake.”

Likud’s faction chair Yariv Levin termed them “a giant Watergate affair, here in Israel” and called for the Netanyahu trial to be shut down.

“It is time to say clearly: Netanyahu’s trial should be closed immediately. The investigation and indictment processes are fundamentally tainted with a chain of grave offenses,” Levin said.

“This is a groundbreaking event. An event on a historical scale. An event that will decide the future of Israel,” he added.

Asked whether he thought his phone might have been hacked by police, another key state’s witness against Netanyahu, his former senior aide Nir Hefetz, who has already testified, said Thursday that “anything is possible.”

A branch office of NSO Group near the southern town of Sapir, on August 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, File)

Police said in a statement Thursday that they would continue to “cooperate fully and transparently” with the investigation team appointed by the attorney general, which is looking into reports that it repeatedly used hacking software from the NSO Group and others to break into citizens’ phones illegally.

Netanyahu is on trial in three cases, having been indicted for fraud and breach of trust in cases 1000 and 2000, and for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in Case 4000. He denies all wrongdoing and claims the charges were fabricated by a biased police force and state prosecution, led by a weak attorney general, backed by leftist politicians and the media.

Case 4000, the most serious of the three cases against the former prime minister, alleges that Netanyahu advanced regulatory decisions as communications minister and prime minister that immensely benefited Walla owner Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in Bezeq, the country’s largest telecommunications firm, despite opposition from the Communication Ministry’s career officials. In exchange, he allegedly was given what amounted to editorial control over Elovitch’s Walla news site.

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