Right-wing leaders decry police confiscation of PM aides’ phones under probe

Right-wing leaders decry police confiscation of PM aides’ phones under probe

Premier’s son complains of ‘dictatorship,’ Smotrich warns of ‘deep state’ action; police say devices will be searched for relevant info only, preferably by judge, with court order

Likud spokesman Jonathan Urich speaks at a Central Elections Committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, April 3, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Likud spokesman Jonathan Urich speaks at a Central Elections Committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, April 3, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Right-wing figures, among them the prime minister’s son and the transportation minister, on Monday decried the police confiscation of the cellphones of Likud campaign officials suspected of harassing a state witness, with some warning of a “deep state” conspiracy and an end to democracy.

On Sunday, police confirmed they had opened an investigation into senior campaign figures alleged to have harassed Shlomo (Momo) Filber, a former confidant of Netanyahu who led the Likud party’s campaign in the 2015 elections before testifying against the premier in an alleged bribery case.

Aides were accused of ordering a van that looked like it belonged to the Bratslav Hasidic sect sent to Filber’s home with loudspeakers blasting allegations he lied about the case.

The revelation that law enforcement had also confiscated the officials’ phones riled rightist activists on social media.

Yair Netanyahu, son of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Flash90)

Yair Netanyahu, on Twitter, said, “Police, under the instruction of the prosecution, confiscated all the phones of the prime minister’s senior aides. because they are accused of setting up a humorous Bratslav stand outside Momo Filber’s home, and the junta says this is ‘witness harassment.’

“We are officially a dictatorship. Head out into the streets [to protest] because you’re next!”

Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich (Jewish Home-National Union) claimed on Twitter that the arrests were part of a “deep state” conspiracy, and wondered aloud whether his conversations with one of the aides would be leaked to the media by police.

Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich speaks to supporters during an election campaign event in Ramat Gan, August 12, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

The phones’ confiscation was “a frightening crossing of a bright red line by the prosecution,” he said. “It’s difficult to escape the feeling that the cases against the prime minister are disintegrating and the prosecution has launched an uninhibited phishing operation to enlist state witnesses at any cost.” He warned things were “coming close to the level of the end of democracy.”

New Right co-leader Ayelet Shaked was somewhat more temperate in her response, though still critical.

“Our cellphones are our internal world,” she said. “To take a person’s phone and confiscate it is like undressing a person. It should be done with caution. I doubt this was the case [here].”

In a joint statement Monday afternoon, the police and the Justice Ministry said the phones were confiscated “due to clear investigative requirements.” They clarified that the phones would not be opened or examined without specific court warrants allowing it, and limited only to contacts specified in such warrants.

“The state will request that, if possible, the judge will be the one to locate the materials, rather than investigators,” they said.

They a stressed that any attempt to intimidate or harass witnesses was viewed severely, and particularly in the case of a state witness. “Law enforcement authorities will show no tolerance towards actions of this type.”

But “due to the obvious sensitivity, the investigation is being conducted under the observation of the most senior levels of the justice system.”

The suspects in the case are Likud spokesman Jonatan Urich and the party’s campaign manager, Ofer Golan, who is also a spokesman for the Netanyahu family.

Filber is a key witness in Case 4000, in which Netanyahu is alleged to have advanced regulations benefiting Bezeq controlling shareholder Shaul Elovitch in exchange for positive coverage from the telecom company’s Walla news site.

Filber was director-general of the Communications Ministry, which Netanyahu headed during the period under scrutiny by prosecutors. He was arrested and questioned over his involvement in the case before turning state’s witness.

Netanyahu faces pending charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery in the case. He also faces fraud and breach of trust charges in two other cases. He denies any wrongdoing. Earlier this month, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s office held a pre-indictment hearing for Netanyahu, having previously announced his intention to charge the premier in all three cases.

Communications Ministry Director-General Shlomo Filber at a Knesset committee meeting on July 24, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Golan was questioned under caution over the weekend on suspicion that in August he ordered a van sent to Filber’s home with loudspeakers blasting accusations, alleging he lied during investigations to incriminate Netanyahu and calling him a “traitor,” a Channel 13 report said.

In a video of that incident, a vehicle bearing slogans of the Bratslav Hasidic sect can be seen parked near Filber’s home, with a voice saying: “Momo, be a man! Come out, tell the truth. Momo Filber, what did they do to you to get you to lie against the prime minister? What did they promise you? Momo, the left is using you to topple Likud! Listen to what you yourself said before police pressured you.”

A recording of Filber is then heard, saying: “There is no crime here. Where has this even come from? Everything I promoted was within my purview as director general.”

Urich and other top Likud activists were also questioned.

Police later confirmed the existence of the investigation, saying in a statement that it had been ongoing covertly for several weeks.

“The investigation is being supervised by the state attorney and with the approval of the attorney general,” it said.

Netanyahu’s office responded with a strongly worded statement, calling the investigation “scandalous” and continuing his longtime allegation of a witch hunt conducted against him by police, prosecutors and the attorney general at the behest of the left and the media.

“The persecution doesn’t stop for a moment,” the statement said. “The ink hasn’t dried on the thousand pages of defense arguments filed by the prime minister’s attorneys in the hearing, and already they are interrogating all those close to the prime minister.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting of Likud party members at the Knesset in Jerusalem, October 3, 2019 (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

“The goal is clear: to neutralize the prime minister’s ability to fight over public opinion in the face of the flood of incessant leaks against him by harming his associates. This is scandalous.”

Amid Hadad, Golan’s lawyer — who is also representing Netanyahu — released a statement calling the suspicions “false and baseless accusations that would have better not been investigated at all. While Mr. Golan is forbidden from expressing himself on the matter to avoid obstructing an investigation, the existence of the investigation was illegally leaked.

“We have no doubt that eventually the case against Mr. Golan will be closed for the simple reason that he has never harassed state witness Filber or any other witness,” Hadad added.

The investigations against the premier have been plagued by repeated leaks of testimony.

Netanyahu is suspected of an illicit quid pro quo with Elovitch that continued for about four years until early 2017. The alleged understanding saw Elovitch ensure favorable coverage of Netanyahu at Walla, Israel’s second-largest news site, and critical coverage of Netanyahu’s rivals, especially in the 2013 and 2015 election periods.

Shaul Elovitch at the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court for a remand hearing in Case 4000, February 26, 2018. (Flash90)

Mandelblit’s lengthy description of Netanyahu’s alleged illicit dealings with Elovitch, known as Case 4000, took up the majority of a 57-page document released in February, in which the attorney general set out the allegations that prompted him to announce a criminal indictment against the prime minister, pending a hearing.

The second case, Case 1000, involves accusations that Netanyahu received gifts and benefits from billionaire benefactors. Mandelblit said he intends to charge Netanyahu with fraud and breach of trust — the latter a somewhat murkily defined offense relating to an official violating the trust the public has placed in him.

The third, Case 2000, revolves around accusations Netanyahu agreed with Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes, to weaken a rival daily in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth. In this case, Mandelblit will seek to also charge the premier with breach of trust, while Mozes will be charged with bribery, pending a hearing.

Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing in all the cases.

Michael Bachner contributed to this report.

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