Police possess a “significant” piece of evidence against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Bezeq corruption probe, Channel 10 reported Tuesday.
According to the report, the evidence is also tied to Bezeq majority shareholder Shaul Elovitch and former media adviser for the prime minister Nir Hefetz — which is why the courts have ordered them to remain in police custody through Sunday.
The television station did not provide further information on the claim.
Netanyahu is expected to be questioned in the probe, known as Case 4000, on Friday, possibly even under caution as a criminal suspect, a source familiar with the investigation told The Times of Israel earlier this week.
If Hefetz and Elovitch were released before then, they could speak with the prime minister before he faces police investigators.
The case involves suspicions that Elovitch ordered the Walla news site, which he owns, to grant positive coverage to Netanyahu and his family, in exchange for the prime minister advancing regulations benefiting Bezeq.
Netanyahu took to Facebook Tuesday night to deny any connection to the case.
“After they claimed the prime minister smoked one million shekels worth of cigars, here comes more hot air: benefits worth a billion shekel,” he wrote. “However, all the actions taken [with regard to Bezeq] were substantive, based on recommendations from the professional staff, professional committees, and legal advice.
“Not a million, not a billion, not a trillion — nothing,” he said.
In a first official on-record statement implicating him in the investigation, Netanyahu was named Tuesday as one of the people believed to have been involved in bribery as part of the alleged illicit deal.
Speaking at a hearing in which Elovitch and Hefetz appealed their continued detention in the case, state prosecutor Yehudit Tirosh of the Israel Securities Authority said that in his role as communications minister, Netanyahu was at the center of “a very grave instance of giving and taking bribes.”
Tirosh, arguing before the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court, said that “positive coverage is a mild way of putting it.”
“I have no way of properly describing the benefit [he received]. We are talking about enlisting a leading news site to provide adulating coverage in return for regulatory benefits given by the Communications Ministry, the minister of communications, and the director-general of the Communications Ministry,” she said.
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 the satellite cable provider 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.
Suspended Communications Ministry director Shlomo Filber, who turned state witness last week and is expected to provide information possibly incriminating Netanyahu in the probe, had his remand extended by 15 days last Wednesday.
Tirosh, repeating comments she made at a Monday hearing, said the benefits given to Bezeq were worth “up to a billion shekels [$290 million].”
On Monday, the 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 — but acceded to a request from the prosecution to keep Elovitch and Hefetz in custody until Sunday.
Arguing Tuesday against overturning that ruling, Tirosh said the state believed that Elovitch and Hefetz would try to obstruct the investigation, even possibly suggesting illicit consultation with Netanyahu himself.
“There is a real suspicion that if the suspects are released today, hugely important investigative work that needs to be carried out in the coming days will be thwarted,” she said.
On Sunday, Channel 10 reported that Hefetz and Elovitch had coordinated their version of events and deleted incriminating messages that allegedly linked the favorable coverage Netanyahu received on the Walla news site to the policies that benefited Bezeq.
“We are talking about a real evidence-based suspicion of instances of obstructing the investigation by these two suspects,” Tirosh said in an apparent reference to allegations made in the report.
Elovitch’s and Hefetz’s lawyers argued that leaked text messages between a judge and one of the investigators in the case, appearing to show the two coordinating remand rulings before hearings were even held, invalidated the state’s bid to hold them in custody. A full transcript of the messages released on Monday, however, appeared to be less damning than initially reported — when only a snippet was available — showing that judge Ronit Poznansky-Katz and prosecutor Eran Shacham-Shavit were mainly discussing case logistics.
Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.