Analysis

Charges Against Netanyahu Are Solid, Embarrassing – and Lethal

The attorney general describes unprecedented catering to wealthy businessmen, and lays bare a narrative that directly clashes with the prime minister's claims

A protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, October 9, 2018.
Ofer Vaknin

“Netanyahu will never commit bribery because he’s incapable of giving anyone anything,” the late Jacob Weinroth, a friend and attorney of the prime minister, used to say. Weinroth knew his client’s soul well and believed he wasn’t corrupt.

The list of suspicions against the prime minister, signed by Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, clashes heavily with Weinroth’s assumptions. The indictment suggests that Benjamin Netanyahu rewarded tycoons who had showered him with largess.

“Do you know what a pile of papers I sign every day?” Netanyahu recently asked one of his interlocutors, who said Bibi used both hands to show him an imaginary stack. Netanyahu was trying to convey the passive role he played in 2015 when he signed off on a deal sought by Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of Israel’s largest telecom company, Bezeq.

>> Read more: Netanyahu to be charged with bribery pending hearing ■ Israel's double rule exposed ■ This changes everything ■ Netanyahu's response is plea for putsch ■ What happens next ■ Facing charges, Netanyahu looks to world stage for help

This was the 1-billion-shekel ($280 million) sale of shares in the Yes satellite television company from Elovitch’s private company Eurocom to Bezeq, which is listed on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. In that conversation with the imaginary pile of papers, as with responses to the police, Netanyahu portrays his signature as unimportant, like an Interior Ministry official signing off on a passport.

But Mendelblit describes Netanyahu, who back then served as communications minister as well, as a very active player in approving a transaction that Elovitch considered crucial. “If he doesn’t sign there’s no deal,” the tycoon reportedly said in February 2015 in a text message to Walla News CEO, Ilan Yeshua, while demanding that Yeshua ensure positive coverage of the prime minister, who was in the middle of an election campaign.

2000breach

At the same time, Elovitch wanted Netanyahu to delay implementation of the reform of the cellphone market that Gilad Erdan had pushed when he was communications minister in 2013 and 2014. Implementation would have cost the tycoon hundreds of millions while saving the public significant sums on their landline bills.

Netanyahu is described by Mendelblit as someone who took a host of positive actions in Elovitch’s favor. He asked Erdan to heed Bezeq’s arguments. Erdan proceeded to push the reform forward in a rush. Netanyahu replaced Erdan even though his fellow Likudnik had asked to remain in the post so he could finish the job.

At the end of November 2014, 10 days after Netanyahu became communications minister, his adviser Nir Hefetz and Elovitch visited the prime minister’s official residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street. Elovitch asked Netanyahu to approve the Bezeq-Yes deal in short order. Sure enough, Netanyahu asked his bureau chief, David Sharan, whom the police later suspected of bribery in Israel’s so-called submarine affair, to move the deal forward.

Following Netanyahu’s victory in the March 2015 election, the prime minister lost all restraint: Over the phone he fired the director general of the Communications Ministry, Avi Berger. Mendelblit strongly hints that this was a realization of Elovitch’s wishes, because Berger was an obstacle on the tycoon’s path.

Shaul Elovitch in court, February 22, 2018.
Ofer Vaknin

To replace Berger, Netanyahu appointed Shlomo Filber, instructing him to promote Elovitch's interests. This would happen above all by approving the Bezeq-Yes deal and softening the reform of the cellphone market. Filber obeyed.

The Bulldozer, as he was called by Elovitch in a phone call that was recorded, proceeded to work as an agent of the Bezeq landline monopoly, riding roughshod over norms expected of a civil servant.

A few years ago, former Accountant General Yaron Zelekha was interviewed by Haaretz. He told how Netanyahu, when he was finance minister, acted against a request to intervene in a regulatory issue where Zelekha had refused to soften. Netanyahu explained how Israel is a law-abiding country, Zelekha said.

Bibi transformed

Fifteen years after that meeting, Mendelblit describes Netanyahu as someone who underwent a transformation, crossing red lines that he probably wouldn’t have crossed in the past. The politician who had held neoliberal positions, speaking out against monopolies and cartels, was taking steps that would perpetuate Bezeq as a monopoly.

Netanyahu showered all this bounty on Elovitch only because Bezeq owned the Walla News website. “If you offer Netanyahu money or media control, he’ll opt for the latter,” said a senior jurist familiar with the Netanyahu cases.

Indeed, in sharp contrast to Netanyahu’s claims that Walla only published “a small number of stories about Sara Netanyahu,” Mendelblit says Elovitch let the prime minister and his people take over Walla for many years, severely infringing on freedom of the press. He says Netanyahu, his wife and their representatives passed on hundreds of demands to tilt news coverage in their favor or against political rivals, calling at unusual hours and exerting intense pressure, which led Elovitch and his wife to instruct Walla CEO Yeshua to agree.

The list gets pretty embarrassing. For example, when the prime minister’s son Yair demanded that adviser Hefetz get an item removed from Haaretz’s business section, TheMarker, Hefetz wrote him: “TheMarker isn’t Shaul. They’re not afraid of you …. They don’t yield to anyone. Not a prime minister or the son of one.”

Case 2000 involving a deal with Arnon Mozes, the publisher of the daily Yedioth Ahronoth, is linked to Case 4000, the Bezeq case. Netanyahu failed with Mozes, so he tried his hand with Elovitch.

The list of suspicions describes Netanyahu as someone who in every election tried to dance a corrupt dance with Mozes: tilting Yedioth’s coverage in exchange for weakening or wiping out the baby of U.S. casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, the free daily Israel Hayom. The round of meetings in 2014, before the last election, is the most amazing stretch.

Six secret meetings were reportedly held between the two, with only two recorded. Mozes spoke bluntly. Mozes promised that Netanyahu could remain prime minister as long as he liked if he got the governing coalition to support a bill that would hobble the free newspaper, restoring Yedioth Ahronoth’s standing as Israel’s most popular daily. With unbridled cynicism, for the last three decades the most powerful player in the Israeli media traded his journalist’s freedom of expression and offered a bribe to the prime minister, Mendelblit says.

Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes attends a basketball game in Israel, January 17, 2019.
Nir Keidar

Netanyahu is described by Mendelblit as wily: He wanted what Mozes was offering but didn’t want to deliver the goods. Under this view, Netanyahu deceived Mozes, letting him believe he’d support the bill only so that Yedioth Ahronoth would be tamed before an election. Netanyahu apparently knew that he couldn’t grant Mozes his wish because he couldn’t really hurt Adelson or his newspaper.

According to the suspicions, on December 13, 2014, Netanyahu met with Mozes and told him that the bill couldn’t be passed during an election campaign. He promised that he would strive to fulfill his commitment after the election. The disappointed Mozes didn’t believe him. Netanyahu urged him to shun negative stories about him and his family during the campaign, promising him that he’d meet with Adelson and ask him to curb the circulation of his paper.

At this stage, their conversation turned to threats. The deal blew up and the disappointed Mozes moved to topple Netanyahu, who now put all his money on Elovitch. The last election, then, is the scene where the two cases meet.

In view of what’s described in Case 2000, the Mozes case, it’s hard to understand why Mendelblit insisted on accusing Netanyahu of fraud and breach of trust and not bribery. This may be the result of a compromise between the attorney general, who was cool about this case from the start, and state prosecutors Shai Nitzan and Liat Ben Ari, who considered it a clear-cut case of bribery.

More secret recordings

The opening shot was fired in December 2015 when Ari Harow, Netanyahu’s former bureau chief, was questioned on suspicions including fraud because he secretly ran his private consultancy from the Prime Minister’s Office even though he supposedly had sold it. The evidence against Harow was so strong that investigators were convinced he would spend two years in prison. A few months after his first round of questioning, the recordings Harow made landed on Mendelblit’s desk. This is apparently is what kept Harow out of jail in his state’s-evidence agreement.

For months Mendelblit sat on the recordings without launching a criminal investigation. Until the very last minute he refused to give the police the green light to investigate Netanyahu as a criminal suspect. At the time, Mendelblit was at odds with the chief prosecutor of the Jerusalem District, Nurit Litman, who was overseeing the investigation. Litman thought the recordings contained explosive information, both from a criminal and political perspective, something that required a swift investigation.

Only when Mendelblit realized that Mozes told investigators that it was Netanyahu who invited him to negotiate did the attorney general approve questioning of Netanyahu as a criminal suspect.

But later, too, when the evidence grew, Mendelblit was doubtful; people who spoke with him in recent weeks had the impression he was leaning toward closing the case. The battle inside the Justice Ministry over the fate of Case 2000 became passionate; this is what significantly delayed Mendelblit’s indictment announcement.

Apparently, Case 1000 also reveals a give and take between a billionaire and a prime minister. Mendelblit writes that Netanyahu acted on behalf of Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan in personal and business matters: getting his U.S. visa extended, aiding in his attempt to buy part of Channel 2, trying to get then-Finance Minister Yair Lapid to extend tax breaks that would have very much helped Milchan. (Cases against Milchan, Sara Netanyahu and Yair Netanyahu have been closed.)

As Netanyahu was helping out Milchan, the billionaire treated Netanyahu and his wife – sometimes based on their explicit demands – to expensive cigars, jewelry and Champagne. In his announcement, Mendelblit calls this the “supply line.” In this case too, Nitzan and Ben Ari thought Netanyahu should be charged with accepting bribes, but Mendelblit once again chose a lesser charge.

Still, Mendelblit’s list of suspicions is deadly. “The couple is hysterical from the accumulation of incidents against them,” Elovitch reportedly wrote in a text message to a friend on the eve of the last election when the affair of the prime minister’s residences and Sara’s bottles of pink Champagne blew up. Today these events look like child’s play.

Just before his death, Weinroth described to friends how the Netanyahu cases would play out. The gifted lawyer believed that the accumulation of criminal cases put his client in danger.

Weinroth believed that the Netanyahu cases couldn’t be allowed to reach the courts. He must win the election, achieve something historic like a peace with Saudi Arabia, and go for a lenient plea deal.

Netanyahu is telling his people that he’s convinced of his innocence and will fight to the end. The prosecution also objects to a plea deal. Mendelblit’s scathing accusations make it seem doubtful that Weinroth’s instructions will be carried out. The public interest, which has been trampled in the three cases against Netanyahu, will raise its head once again only in a public trial.