Any doubts about illicit deals between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and fallen telecom tycoon Shaul Elovitch in the police’s Case 4000 should be put to rest after the details of Shlomo Filber’s statements to police investigators were leaked this week.
This is the case where the police believe Netanyahu traded friendly coverage by Bezeq’s Walla news site in exchange for help with regulations for the company, Israel’s dominant telecom provider. Filber, who had been appointed director general of the Communications Ministry in 2015 shortly after Netanyahu took over the portfolio, was the point man for the alleged trade-offs.
He has since turned state’s evidence and his testimony points to the role the prime minister played in the ministry’s policies on Bezeq.
In a key incident, Filber described a meeting with Netanyahu that began in a businesslike way before the prime minister relaxed, unbuttoned his jacket and took out a cigar. On the agenda were two items – one was a telecom reform that would have helped smaller companies compete more effectively against Bezeq
According to the transcripts leaked to Channel 12 News, Filber told the police: “He said Elovitch spoke with him – that’s how he said it: ‘Elovitch spoke with me about the ministry reforms, he told me something about a consulting firm that has recommended rates and has done bad work.’ He [Netanyahu] said to me, ‘Don’t cancel the competition entirely, but see what can be done about pricing, maybe to moderate it or spread out [the reforms] over a longer period.”
The other issue was Bezeq’s planned merger with Yes, a satellite television company that was majority-owned by Elovitch at the time. The merger was controversial and later became the subject of an Israel Securities Authority probe. Before Filber had taken over as director general, his predecessor, Avi Berger, had conditioned approval of the deal on Bezeq’s agreeing to regulatory concessions.
But Filber said Netanyahu signaled to him that he wanted the merger to go ahead quickly and unconditionally.
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Filber: “Then he [Netanyahu] said, ‘I also understand that the Bezeq-Yes merger needs to be completed.”
Investigator: “What did you understand [from that remark]?”
Filber: “That the situation with Bezeq-Yes – take care of it and finish it. You don’t need to ask him by when because I understood that it was my job. I knew the situation already, or partially, and anything I didn’t know I would learn. I understood that there was a sort of deadline. What I understood was that I had to meet it.”
Netanyahu’s office has cast doubt on what Filber told the police. “Even after Filber turned state’s evidence he has repeatedly stressed in every interview he has given that decisions made in connection with Bezeq-Yes were done by the rules,” the Prime Minister’s Office said after the Channel 12 report.
“Filber’s remarks are at odds with his false testimony. It’s a pity that to save himself from the consequences of actions he committed without any connection to the prime minister, he has had no choice but to lie.”
That remains to be seen in court. But if Filber’s version holds true there are several important conclusions we can draw from it.
The first is that Netanyahu took money from the public by tinkering with the rollout of telecom reforms and leaving the public to pay higher phone bills. The sum total runs into the hundreds of millions of shekels over several years, which puts Netanyahu in a different league from his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, in terms of the cost of the alleged corruption.
The second is that Netanyahu and Elovitch have both lied about their relationship. The two admit they are friends but have insisted, even to Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, that they’ve never discussed business. The Filber testimony says otherwise.
The third is that the role of senior civil servants as gatekeepers is critical. This is especially so because Netanyahu and his allies have sought to undermine the civil servants’ role on the grounds that politicians should have the power to make decisions as they see fit with minimal interference.
In the case of Filber – a Netanyahu associate who had no experience in the telecom industry when he was appointed director general – the gatekeeper failed. Filber told the police he thought the Bezeq-Yes merger would be a “national disaster,” but he wanted to be close to power and please his boss.
The fourth is how easily the media back then was fooled by so many spinmeisters. There was no shortage of journalists reporting that there was no opposition from Communications Ministry professionals regarding the Bezeq-Yes merger. But as Filber told the police, he understood that his job was to remove the obstacles the ministry’s top professional, Berger, had placed in front of the merger and clear it as quickly as possible.
Finally, Filber tells us a lot about the Netanyahu-Elovitch relationship. Netanyahu wanted the positive oppress coverage from Walla, but what Elovitch wanted and needed was worth a lot more.
As TheMarker reported at the time, the Bezeq-Yes merger was approved in record time – an independent report on its financial impact was completed in just three days – so that Elovitch would get the 680 million shekels ($192 million at current exchange rates) he needed from the deal to repay debt.
Without Netanyahu’s alleged help, Elovtich’s Bezeq group would not have survived as long as it did.