“I understood he was willing to commit suicide for me.” That explosive sentence is Shaul Elovitch’s description of the governmental assistance his Bezeq corporation received from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Elovitch made this comment in summer 2015, shortly after Netanyahu, who was also communications minister at the time, gladdened his heart by approving a merger between the telecommunications corporation and the satellite television company Yes. Elovitch also boasted that favorable coverage of Netanyahu on Bezeq’s internet news site, Walla, had helped the prime minister win that year’s election, adding that he “owes” Netanyahu because the latter worked on his behalf “against everyone.”
These quotes and others like them show that Elovitch saw his relationship with Netanyahu as one of quid pro quo and viewed Walla’s slanted coverage of the prime minister as directly related to the government’s treatment of Bezeq. The conversations were obtained by the police as part of their investigation of the Bezeq-Walla bribery case.
In these conversations, Elovitch also cited then-Communications Ministry Director General Shlomo Filber as the agent Netanyahu employed to help Bezeq. In addition, he voiced fears that Netanyahu would stop helping Bezeq if Walla began publishing negative news about him.
Elovitch denied during his police interrogations that the quotes in question referred to Netanyahu, and his attorney, Jacques Chen, reiterated this denial to Haaretz. “These are fragments of sentences taken out of context, and they aren’t about the prime minister,” Chen said.
But police are convinced that these quotes bolster a key element of the case, which is also known as Case 4000 — the need to prove that Netanyahu, in his role as regulator of the communications industry, indeed took steps to benefit Bezeq.
One such step was approving the Bezeq-Yes merger. As Amitai Ziv reported in TheMarker, the Communications Ministry under Netanyahu and Filber fast-tracked the merger’s approval, and Netanyahu met with Elovitch several times in the months before it was approved.
The Bezeq-Walla case contains no single witness who can tell police the whole story. But according to a source familiar with the details of the investigation, “Each witness illuminates another corner, and they add up to a clear evidentiary picture.”
Filber, who has turned state’s evidence, told investigators about being “inspired” by Netanyahu to help Elovitch. Nir Hefetz, who served as a media advisor to Netanyahu and his wife Sara and has also turned state’s evidence, described the Netanyahus’ expectations that Elovitch would let them intervene extensively in Walla’s journalistic work.
And Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua provided unequivocal evidence that Elovitch intended to bribe Netanyahu and saw Walla as a platform for doing favors for senior officials. One person familiar with the evidence described Yeshua as having “broken the glass ceiling in the Bezeq case.”
Alongside the alleged bribery, the Bezeq-Walla case also involves suspicions of obstruction of justice. In late 2016, Hefetz came to Elovitch’s house in north Tel Aviv. At the time, the media were reporting that police were investigating as-yet unknown suspicions against Netanyahu, and Netanyahu thought they were probably looking into either his relationship with Elovitch or his ties with Australian billionaire James Packer.
Hefetz warned Elovitch and his wife Iris that they might be questioned by the police. And at the end of the meeting, the participants decided to delete all text messages between the parties that might help prove Walla was slanting its coverage in Netanyahu’s favor.
After Hefetz left, Elovitch summoned Yesha and demanded that he, too, delete any incriminating messages. Yeshua pretended to play along, but he actually saved all the messages.
At the same time, Yeshua informed Aviram Elad, who had taken over as Walla’s editor in chief a few weeks earlier, that the site would no longer censor itself. He didn’t explain why, but according to one person involved in the investigation, “the request that he obstruct [justice] shocked him and effectively made him completely cease obeying Elovitch’s demands to tilt the coverage.”
The evidence shows that Elovitch continued pressuring Walla to tilt its coverage, arguing that if the favorable coverage stopped, Netanyahu would cease conferring benefits on Bezeq. But this pressure no longer produced results.
People close to Elovitch say he insisted that the site’s coverage be fair and balanced, but didn’t make any illicit use of it.
“We will show that Mr. Elovitch never worked to tilt coverage for anyone,” Chen said. “We suggest waiting until the investigation finishes. When the picture becomes clear, it will be clear that Mr. Elovitch did nothing wrong.”
Over the past few months, police have also been looking into ties between the Central Bottling Company, the Coca-Cola distributor in Israel, and Netanyahu confidant Nathan Eshel. As Nati Tucker reported in TheMarker, Eshel was paid over 500,000 shekels ($140,000) for managerial services by an organization called Da Emet. Central Bottling Company owner Moshe Wertheim not only headed this organization but was its only donor. The organization’s official purpose was to fight anti-Semitism, but according to its financial reports, it had almost no activity, and the payment to Eshel was its largest expense.
Eshel denied any connection to either Wertheim’s affairs or Coca-Cola. Wertheim died in 2016. The company said it is unaware of any investigation against it.
More than two years have passed since police obtained their first information against Netanyahu, but so far, no decision has been made in any of the cases against him.
In February, police recommended charging him with bribery in two earlier cases — one involving expensive gifts from businessmen, and another involving a discussed but never implemented deal under which the daily Yedioth Ahronoth would give him favorable coverage in exchange for him taking steps to suppress Yedioth’s main rival, Israel Hayom. But due to new information, mainly from Hefetz, those cases have since been returned to the police for further investigation. Businessman Arnon Milchan might be questioned again in connection to the first case.
Hefetz also supplied new information about other cases, including suspected financial irregularities at the prime minister’s residences by Sara Netanyahu. Police are therefore expected to reopen their investigation into this case as well.
Last month, Sara Netanyahu’s attorneys negotiated with prosecutors over a deal in which she would return the money and not be indicted. But the talks failed, reportedly because she refused to pay the requisite sum.
The negotiations recently resumed, but they don’t seem likely to succeed this time, either. Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit has granted them only a few more days, and if a deal hasn’t been reached by then, he is expected to indict her.
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