How his latest loyalist turning state’s witness could be Netanyahu’s undoing
AnalysisThe second insider to turn against his boss

How his latest loyalist turning state’s witness could be Netanyahu’s undoing

Like Ari Harow in Cases 1000 and 2000, Communications Ministry head Shlomo Filber seems likely to turn the tide of incriminating evidence against the PM in Case 4000

Raoul Wootliff

Raoul Wootliff covers politics, corruption and crime for The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on February 11, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / POOL / RONEN ZVULUN)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on February 11, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / POOL / RONEN ZVULUN)

The investigations into Case 1000 and Case 2000, in which police last week recommended indicting Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu for a series of corruption charges, included hundreds of hours of suspect interrogation and testimonies from 80 different witnesses.

Of all the people police questioned, however, the central witness, responsible for the some of the most damning of all the evidence against the prime minister, was apparently his former chief of staff Ari Harow — the insider who cut a deal with the prosecutors. Last August, when the American-born Likud activist signed a plea bargain with prosecutors to turn state’s witness against his former boss in return for significantly lighter punishment for separate corruption charges, the tide in those two cases seemed to turn decisively against Netanyahu.

Harow was responsible for police obtaining the Case 2000 recording of Netanyahu negotiating an allegedly illicit quid pro quo deal with 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.

Harow also appears to have been involved in at least four of the five other bribery schemes that police say Netanyahu plotted in Case 1000, and reportedly provided investigators with evidence that directly led to the indictment recommendations.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and his then-chief of staff Ari Harow arrives at a Likud faction meeting in the Knesset, November 24, 2014. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Less than a week after that dramatic police announcement, Netanyahu is now facing fresh allegations of corruption in connection to a new investigation in which several of his close associates and former aides are implicated.

And, once again, it appears that the closest of them, his former director-general of the Communications Ministry and long-time Likud loyalist, is set not only to turn state’s witness, but also to turn the tide of incriminating evidence against the prime minister.

Shlomo Filber, a suspect in Case 4000, which involves suspicions Bezeq owner Shaul Elovitch gave Netanyahu and his family positive coverage at his Walla news site in exchange for the advancement of policies benefiting the telecommunications giant, signed a plea deal with prosecutors late Tuesday night. Under the agreement he began giving testimony Wednesday morning, reportedly against Netanyahu, in return for an apparent promise that he would not serve jail time.

Police are already said to be treating Netanyahu as a suspect and plan to question him under caution in Case 4000. As with Harow in the previous cases, Filber, who has for two decades boasted of close ties to Netanyahu as a dedicated Likud operative, could prove decisive in how the investigation ends.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) sitting with then-PMO chief of staff Shlomo Filber; Filber signed an agreement to act as a state’s witness, apparently to testify against Netanyahu on February 21, 21018 (Screenshot/Hadashot news)

‘Sole control’

The allegations of misconduct go back to when Netanyahu replaced Gilad Erdan as communications minister in November 2014 in what critics saw as a power grab to give him increased control over the media and telecom industries. He subsequently fired then-director-general Avi Berger over the phone in May 2015 and appointed Filber in his stead.

The move, as well as Netanyahu’s insistence that the 2015 coalition agreements include a provision giving him “sole control” over media matters, immediately raised eyebrows and was perceived by analysts as a signal Netanyahu was looking for a less confrontational stance vis-à-vis Bezeq, which Berger had sought to limit.

Since then, Filber has been at the center of numerous controversial initiatives led by Netanyahu affecting Israel’s media market. Those have included an attempt to overhaul a massive reform put in place by former communications minister Erdan to revamp Israel’s public broadcaster, and extensive efforts to transform a number of commercial media outlets, which police said in their indictment recommendations against Netanyahu could have constituted bribery.

Shlomo Filber, director-general of the Communications Ministry (center), seen during a court hearing in the Supreme Court regarding the closing of the Israel Broadcasting Authority. May 15, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

After the media uncovered a possible conflict of interest between Netanyahu and his friend Elovitch in October 2015, the prime minister was instructed by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit not to involve himself in any decisions about Bezeq. Instead, Filber took the lead.

Under his watch, Bezeq appeared to be given preferential treatment.

For example, in 2014 Israel launched a wholesale market reform to open up the fixed line telephony and internet market, dominated by Bezeq, to competition. According to the plan, by March 2017 Bezeq was supposed to lease out its infrastructure to telecom competitors such as Partner Communications Co. and Cellcom so they could provide competing fixed line and internet services. With Filber overseeing the implementation, Bezeq reneged on its obligation.

Betraying the boss

Last year, following an Israel Securities Authority (ISA) investigation, it was announced that Filber was suspected of making illicit deals with Elovitch, one of which included helping Bezeq buy the satellite cable provider Yes, overriding antitrust issues raised by ministry officials. Investigators reportedly believe Filber favored Bezeq in his decisions by withholding information from professional civil servants and legal advisers at the ministry and transferring to Bezeq confidential documents and internal position and other papers.

That investigation alleged 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.

Israeli businessman Shaul Elovitch arrives for extension of his remand in Case 4000 at the Magistrate’s Court in Rishon Letzion, February 18, 2018. (Flash90)

The new case is focused on whether favors, such as positive coverage from Walla for Netanyahu, were reciprocated.

When Filber was implicated and forced to take leave from the Communications Ministry, many raised questions about how it could be that Netanyahu was not involved, or did not know about his director-general’s actions, given his personal involvement in much of the ministries activities.

If Filber, as state’s witness, testifies that Netanyahu was in fact behind or involved in the Bezeq deals, then the accusations and suspicions hitherto leveled against Filber would be turned on the prime minister.

That would mean Netanyahu could face charges not only for the alleged quid pro quo to get better media coverage, but also for the numerous illicit deals currently attributed to Filber.

A key question now, therefore, is how much Filber is willing to say to implicate his boss and save his own skin.

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