Senior Bezeq officials and Netanyahu associates arrested in graft probe

Police act on ‘new evidence’ in Case 4000, which allegedly involves favorable news coverage for PM in exchange for benefits for national phone company

The offices of Bezeq, the country's largest telecom group. (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
The offices of Bezeq, the country's largest telecom group. (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

Police on Sunday said senior officials in the Bezeq phone company were arrested over the weekend in a graft probe involving close associates of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after a “dramatic” development was reported over the weekend in the case.

In a statement, police said “a number” of high-ranking officials in Israel’s national telephone company Bezeq were detained in the so-called Case 4000.

Two “very close” associates of the prime minister were also arrested, Hebrew-language media reported. The arrests came less than a week after police recommended indicting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in two separate graft probes.

“Following evidence discovered by the Israel Securities Authority in the investigation of the Bezeq case, which raised suspicions that additional offenses had been committed, a new investigation was initiated this morning by investigators from the authority and from Lahav 433,” said police on Sunday, referring to its anti-fraud unit.

“A number of suspects have been arrested as part of the investigation, including senior officials in the Bezeq group,” it added.

In a filing with the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange on Sunday, Bezeq confirmed that senior officials at the Bezeq group had been arrested, as part of a new joint investigation between the Israel Securities Authority and the police.

A gag order has been imposed on other details of the investigation, the company said, adding that the firm has no further information on the nature and circumstances of the investigation.

In the case, police suspect that Shaul Elovitch, owner of the Walla news site and the controlling shareholder of Bezeq, swayed coverage of Netanyahu on the news site in exchange for benefits for Bezeq.

Shaul Elovitch, Bezeq’s controlling shareholder (Calcalist screenshot)

The director-general of the Communications Ministry, Shlomo Filber, is accused of illicitly allowing Bezeq to buy shares of Yes, a satellite cable provider. Filber was appointed by Netanyahu, who also served as communications minister before handing over the portfolio to Likud’s Ayoub Kara.

Netanyahu has not been named as a suspect in the probe, but according to Israel Radio, the prime minister could soon be questioned under caution in the case.

“This is another false claim,” a statement from Netanyahu’s office said on Sunday, in response to the arrests. “The prime minister did not work to benefit Elovitch and Bezeq, not for positive coverage or anything else.”

On Friday Hadashot TV reported unspecified dramatic developments, saying the case involves “surprises” and that it appears to be “the strongest case of them all, with explosive potential.”

Haaretz reported that Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua is a key witness in the case and that he said he faced intense pressure to bury negative reporting about Netanyahu and encourage positive reporting about his wife Sara.

Yinon Magal, a former Jewish Home party lawmaker who once edited the Walla news site, also said Thursday that he was pressured to cover Netanyahu and his family in a positive light.

Hadashot reported that a strong body of evidence has been gathered, pointing to numerous messages exchanged between suspects in the case, including an unnamed associate of Netanyahu.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaves a conference in Tel Aviv on February 14, 2018. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)

Police recommended on Tuesday that Netanyahu be indicted for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in both corruption investigations over which he has been repeatedly questioned, known as cases 1000 and 2000.

In Case 1000, Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, are alleged to have received illicit gifts from billionaire benefactors, most notably the Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, totaling NIS 1 million ($282,000).

In return, Netanyahu is alleged by police to have intervened on Milchan’s behalf in matters relating to legislation, business dealings, and visa arrangements.

Case 2000 involves a suspected illicit quid pro quo deal between Netanyahu and Mozes that would have seen the prime minister weaken a rival daily, the Sheldon Adelson-backed Israel Hayom, in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.

Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing in the various cases.

In his first public appearance since police published the recommendations, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit on Thursday dismissed reports of a rift between state prosecutors and the police, hailing the police investigators and the quality of the work they did during the year-long probe.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaks at the Kohelet Forum Conference at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, in Jerusalem, on October 24, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“These investigations were done according to the book, precisely in the way you would expect of law enforcement authorities handling a case like this — professionally, thoroughly, resourcefully, smartly, with a determination to establish the truth,” he told a conference at Tel Aviv University.

“There has been close, fruitful cooperation” between police and prosecutors, he stressed, including “dozens of joint meetings.”

Mandelblit, who will make the final decision on whether to press charges against Netanyahu, vowed to ignore “all the background noise” and focus solely on establishing the truth.

Noting that there is naturally great public interest in the cases due to the identity of the suspects — Netanyahu, leading businessmen and a newspaper publisher — the attorney general stressed that “all decisions that were taken so far, and all decisions that will be taken in the future, were based and will be based on nothing but the evidence and law.”

“I don’t know at this time when, at the end of the day, the decision will be taken [on whether to press charges]. I do know that the decision will only be taken on the basis of the evidence and justice. I stress once again: only the evidence will speak. Only the law will determine — no other external considerations or body will influence the decision.”

“No one is above the law and no one is immune from it,” he said emphatically.

Some media reports have assessed that Mandelblit may not be ready to make a final decision on indictments until the beginning of next year. TV reports on Wednesday night asserted that the police feel the decision should be made within eight months, whereas the prosecution has indicated it will take longer.

Raoul Wootliff and Stuart Winer contributed to this report.

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