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Supreme Court okays search of Netanyahu ex-aides’ phones in witness harassment case

But panel of 9 justices slams police for illegally initiating review of Yonatan Urich’s and Ofer Golan’s phones, saying legislation needed to ensure privacy in future probes

(R-L) Ofer Golan, Likud campaign manager, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, digital adviser Topaz Luk and Likud spokesman Jonatan Urich at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem on March 20, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
(R-L) Ofer Golan, Likud campaign manager, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, digital adviser Topaz Luk and Likud spokesman Jonatan Urich at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem on March 20, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Supreme Court on Tuesday approved a police search of the phones of two aides to former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu who are accused of trying to intimidate a key trial witness against their former boss, even though a previous search was conducted illegally.

The decision was made by an extended panel of nine justices, upholding decisions made a year ago by a smaller Supreme Court panel and two years ago by the Tel Aviv District Court. The investigation into former Netanyahu advisers Yonatan Urich and Ofer Golan had been frozen until a final court decision on the phone search was made.

Even though they approved the phone search, the justices criticized police and said their ruling “doesn’t lessen the unacceptable nature” of investigators’ actions and that “it should be expected that such cases won’t repeat themselves.”

With one of the nine justices — Yosef Elron — dissenting, the justices set out guidelines to ensure privacy in future investigations, urging the Knesset to legislate the matter as soon as possible.

Originally, the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court ruled in January 2020 that police could carry out a limited search of the phone of Netanyahu campaign manager Ofer Golan, and could not search the phone of Likud spokesman Jonatan Urich, explaining that the request for a search warrant for the latter device was based on evidence obtained through previous unauthorized reviews of the devices.

That ruling was appealed by the state, which argued that there had been sufficient evidence to justify the search at the time the warrant was requested. The subsequent rulings mean police can search the personal phones of both men.

The aides are suspected of harassing state witness Shlomo Filber, a former Likud campaign manager and longtime confidant to Netanyahu.

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

Filber is a key witness in Case 4000, in which the prime minister is accused of advancing regulatory decisions benefiting Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in telecom giant Bezeq, in exchange for positive coverage from the Elovitch-owned Walla news site. Filber was then director-general of the Communications Ministry, which Netanyahu headed as minister during part of the period under scrutiny by prosecutors.

Filber was arrested and questioned over his involvement in the case before turning state witness.

The Likud officials are suspected of sending a van to Filber’s home with loudspeakers, blasting allegations that he had lied about the case.

The search of the phones had previously been strongly criticized by Likud politicians as well as the former prime minister himself, who called it “a terror attack against Israeli democracy and every citizen’s right to privacy.”

In addition to Case 4000, in which Netanyahu has been charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, he is also accused of the latter two offenses in two other cases against him.

Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing and claims to be the victim of a witch hunt involving the opposition, the media, the police and state prosecutors.

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