In a bombshell announcement that could once again threaten the stability of the government, the Israel Police announced on Sunday that it was recommending bribery charges against both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara Netanyahu, in the Bezeq corruption probe, known as Case 4000.
Investigators say that Benjamin Netanyahu advanced regulatory decisions benefiting Shaul 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.
In a blistering accusation, police said “the prime minister and his associates intervened in a blatant and ongoing manner, and sometimes even daily, in the content published by the Walla News website, and also sought to influence the appointment of senior officials (editors and reporters) via their contacts with Shaul and Iris Elovitch,” the Bezeq owner’s wife.
“The main suspicion is that the prime minister took bribes and acted in a conflict of interest by intervening and acting in regulatory decisions that favor Shaul Elovitch and the Bezeq Group, while at the same time directly and indirectly demanded interference with the content of the Walla site in a way that would benefit him,” police said in a joint statement with the Israel Securities Authority, which also took part in the nine-month investigation.
Police said there was “improper conduct between Netanyahu and Elovitch on two main axes: diverting media coverage in exchange for preferable regulation.”
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. Two of his top confidants have turned state witnesses and are believed to have provided police with incriminating evidence. 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 say the investigation, which included the testimony of 60 witnesses, revealed that Netanyahu and Bezeq boss Shaul Elovitch engaged in a “bribe-based relationship.” Two suspects-turned-state’s-witness helped police in the investigation: former media adviser to the Netanyahu family Nir Hefetz former Communications Ministry director general Shlomo Filber.
The summary of the investigation also included a recommendation to charge Sara Netanyahu with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, and for “disruption of investigative and judicial proceedings,” as well as charges against Shaul Elovitch.
Police said that the findings show the prime minister used his office “to promote Shaul Elovitch’s regulatory affairs, including the issue of the Bezeq-Yes merger, and including the coverage of these matters in Walla’s positive coverage,” referring to the Yes satellite TV company.
“The intervention of the prime minister and his associates in the contents and appointments of employees at the Walla website was intended to promote his personal interests by publishing flattering articles and pictures, and removing critical content about the prime minister and his family,” the statement said.
Sara Netanyahu, police said, acted on the prime minister’s behalf to coordinate coverage at Walla with Shaul Elovitch, Iris Elovitch and Ilan Yeshua, the CEO of the news site, against whom they also recommended bribery charges.
“The findings also revealed that the Elovitch family influenced Walla’s publications, in exchange for the prime minister’s regulatory decisions in favor of of Shaul Elovitch and the Bezeq Group, and out of a desire to further advance the business interests of the Bezeq Group in general and its controlling shareholder in particular,” police said.
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 for fraud and breach of trust; and Ze’ev Rubenstein, a close friend of the Netanyahu and Elovitch families and vice president of Israel Bonds, for bribery charges.
Police also said that during the investigation, carried out by the force’s Lahav 433 National Unit for Combating Economic Crime together with the enforcement branch of the Tax Authority, assets and funds estimated at a value of NIS 118 million (some $32 million) were seized from suspects in the case.
Netanyahu denied the allegations Sunday, accusing the police of a conspiracy against him.
“The police recommendations regarding me and my wife don’t surprise anyone, nor does the transparent timing of their publication,” Netanyahu said in a statement.
Sunday marks the final full day in office of police commissioner Roni Alsheich, who was appointed by Netanyahu but with whom Netanyahu has tangled, and whose term the prime minister declined to extend for a customary fourth year.
Netanyahu’s coalition has been on shaky ground recently, with the departure of the Yisrael Beytenu party making early elections a distinct possibility.
“These recommendations were set and leaked before the investigations even started,” he said. “Police recommendations have no legal standing. Just recently the relevant authorities rejected outright police recommendations against a series of public officials. I’m sure that in this case as well, the relevant authorities, after checking the matter, will reach the same conclusion — that there isn’t anything because nothing happened.”
During Sunday morning’s cabinet meeting, Transportation Minister Israel Katz “offered his support to the prime minister on behalf of the whole cabinet,” to which Netanyahu responded, “Thank you, but you seem to be taking this more seriously than me.”
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 a rival daily, the Sheldon Adelson-backed Israel Hayom, in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.
Netanyahu has denied wrongdoing in all of the cases, insisting the gifts were given by friends and were not bribes, and that he never intended to act on his conversations with Mozes.
In their Sunday statement, police specifically noted that the investigation had not found enough evidence to charge Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu’s son, Yair Netanyahu, who was questioned a number of times during the investigation.
The recommendations in Case 4000 now go to the Attorney General’s Office, where they will first be reviewed by the state prosecutor before going to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit.
Mandelblit, who will make the final decision whether to indict the prime minister, intends to examine all three cases at the same time, which will be possible only after he receives the state attorney’s recommendations based on the final police reports.
That process makes late 2019 the likely timing for any final word on whether Netanyahu will face trial. The next Knesset elections are currently slated for November 2019, but may very well be held earlier.
Coalition partners have previously said that they would not leave the government unless a full indictment was filed against the prime minister, but recent crises may have shifted allegiances in the coalition after it was reduced last month to a paper-thin majority of just 61-59 in the 120-seat Knesset.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.