Two words could protect PM from police indictment recommendation in Bezeq probe

Officials stressed that arrests this week in so-called Case 4000 are part of a ‘new investigation,’ meaning recommendations are nixed under a new law, but it may not be so simple

Raoul Wootliff

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at an inauguration ceremony for a new section at the Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv, February 15, 2018. (Miriam Alster/ Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at an inauguration ceremony for a new section at the Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv, February 15, 2018. (Miriam Alster/ Flash90)

Sunday’s arrest of several top Bezeq officials and senior figures close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in what has been dubbed Case 4000, and the police estimation that he too will soon be questioned as a suspect, appeared to set in motion what could become a repeat of last week’s police recommendation to indict the premier in two separate probes.

Netanyahu is said to be suspected of furthering a deal under which Shaul Elovitch, owner of the Walla news site and the controlling shareholder of the Bezeq communications company, swayed Walla’s coverage of the prime minister and his family in exchange for the Communications Ministry enacting policies potentially worth hundreds of millions of shekels for Elovitch. According to police sources quoted by a range of Hebrew media sources, investigators already have significant proof of a quid pro quo deal.

Police on Tuesday lifted a gag order on the case,  revealing the names of seven people who were arrested earlier this week. Among those arrested and ordered held for five days were Elovitch; his wife, Iris; and his son Or. Also held were the director general of the Communications Ministry, Shlomo Filber; former Netanyahu family spokesman Nir Hefetz; Bezeq CEO Stella Handler; and senior Bezeq executive Amikam Shorer.

But whereas police last Tuesday publicized their recommendations to indict Netanyahu in the two major, 14-month investigations against him, Cases 1000 and 2000, the public may never get to hear the police’s recommendations in Case 4000.

Two months ago, at the height of the Case 1000 and Case 2000 probes, the coalition, led by Likud MK David Amsalem, successfully pushed through controversial legislation [Hebrew] to prohibit police from publishing their recommendations in investigations of public officials. The “Police Recommendations Law,” which came into effect on January 3, bars investigators from informing prosecutors whether they believe there are grounds for indictment and from publicizing or leaking conclusions to the media.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and MK David Amsalem during a Likud party faction meeting at the Knesset, February 05, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In cases overseen by a prosecutor — namely high-profile cases, such as against public officials — recommendations on both the evidentiary basis and indictments are illegal, the law says. A last-minute change inserted in the legislation permits the attorney general to seek police input, though critically he and police would be banned from publicizing those recommendations, on pain of jail time. Moreover, investigators who leak information from the cases can also be jailed for up to a year.

The legislation caused a political firestorm, with critics saying it was designed to protect corrupt politicians, Netanyahu among them, from public backlash, muzzle investigators, and curb police authority. Proponents, meanwhile, argued that police recommendations, once leaked to the media, cause irreparable damage to the suspects’ reputations, and only rarely, they claimed, result in an indictment by prosecutors.

During deliberations over the bill, Netanyahu himself conceded that in order to avoid the appearance that it was tailored to protect him from public fallout in his own corruption probes, the law would be amended so as not to apply to him.

The version of the bill approved by lawmakers therefore read, “This law will not apply to investigations that were opened before it came into effect,” and Likud MKs emphatically declared that any claim that the law would help Netanyahu were thus null and void.

Initially, it appeared that they were right.

Without that exemption, last week’s police recommendations in Case 1000 and Case 2000 would not have been allowed to go ahead.

Arnon Milchan (left) and Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference in the Knesset on March 28, 2005. (Flash90)

In Case 1000, police said, Netanyahu and his wife 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, according to investigators, involves a suspected illicit quid pro quo deal between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon 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.

The prime minister has also been linked indirectly to “Case 3000,” a large investigation into suspected corruption surrounding the multi-billion shekel purchase of naval vessels and submarines from a German shipbuilder. While Netanyahu has not been named as a suspect, close associates of his, including his personal aides, have been arrested or questioned.

And, like the other investigations, since it was also opened before the Recommendations Law was passed, police are free to publish recommendations in Case 3000, if they decide to, even if the prime minister is made a suspect in the future.

But it appears that the law’s backers may have been overreaching when claiming it would have no effect on future legal proceedings against the prime minister.

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

Case 4000 has ostensibly been open since June 2017 when the Israel Securities Authority (ISA) raided Bezeq’s offices, as it probed possible securities law violations, later expanding to include dodgy dealings with the telecommunications regulator and shady deals between various companies owned by Elovitch.

But in Sunday’s joint statement announcing the arrests, the ISA and the Israel Police were careful to stress that the move came as part of a “new investigation.”

“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,” the statement, referring to the police’s anti-fraud unit.

ISA spokesperson Sharona Mazalian Levi told The Times of Israel that the latest case was only opened on Sunday, and that while the investigations were “certainly connected,” the initial Bezeq probe ended in November, when the financial regulator handed over to the public prosecution what it said was compelling evidence against the heads of Bezeq.

The investigation found that Elovitch made NIS 170 million ($48 million) illegally in a business deal Bezeq made with Yes, the ISA said in a statement at the time, adding that it had uncovered evidence Bezeq received insider information from the Communications Ministry, and also worked with the director of the ministry to influence decisions so that Bezeq would benefit.

The new case is focused on whether favors or financial benefits were reciprocated. Police are now unofficially treating the prime minister as a suspect, and plan to question him under caution in the coming months, police sources were reported as saying Sunday night. In this case, like 2000 and 3000, Netanyahu is also suspected of bribery, Channel 10 news reported.

Mazalian Levi said that first ISA probe “did give rise to the new investigation, but no, they are not considered the same thing.”

If, as Mazalian Levi says, the case was only opened on Sunday, that would mean that the Recommendations Law does indeed apply, and that at the end of the investigation, police would be severely limited in publishing their indictment recommendations against the prime minister or anyone else implicated.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a tour of the Jerusalem Police headquarters at the Russian compound in Jerusalem, October 7, 2015. (GPO)

A Justice Ministry source, however, told The Times of Israel that Sunday’s announcement only referred to the “public stage” of the investigation, and that investigators from various law enforcement authorities had been working on the case “for a number of months.” The source asked to remain unnamed, since it was not authorized to share the information.

Asked whether that earlier work constituted an active investigation, potentially exempting the case from the Recommendations Law, police declined to comment, saying that there were “no further details” beyond Sunday’s statement.

But court records of Sunday’s remand hearing for the arrested suspects suggest that the case was in fact opened earlier. As opposed to the “Case 4000” nickname given by police in line with the other investigations probing potential government-level corruptions, the case number filed by police with the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court was 5779-1, with the last digit usually signifying the month the file was opened; that is, January.

If that is the case, then the question of whether the Recommendations Law applies would rest on whether the specific date was before or after January 3, when the law came into effect.

Israeli constitutional law expert Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer said that even if the case was opened after January 3, it could still be exempt, but that would depend on “how connected the investigations actually are.”

“We don’t know enough at this stage, we have to wait to find out,” he said.

Tomer Rozner, the legal adviser to the Knesset Internal Affair Committee, which prepared the bill before its final readings, said that the law was intended to apply “specifically to cases that have been opened,” but that the ambiguity in this case would likely set up future disagreements over what that may mean.

“It’s open to interpretation,” he said. Where Case 4000 is concerned, he predicted, “it appears that we are likely to see a legal battle if police do decide they want to indict.”

read more: