Court Allows Search of Netanyahu Advisers’ Cellphones

Tel Aviv court denies appeal by the four advisers, suspected of witness tampering for allegedly intimidating a state's witness, to bar police investigators from searching their phones

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Netanayhu spokesman Jonatan Urich, Ofer Golan (driving), the prime minister’s media adviser, November 11, 2019.
Netanayhu spokesman Jonatan Urich, Ofer Golan (driving), the prime minister’s media adviser, November 11, 2019.Credit: אוהד צויגנברג

An appeal by four advisers of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to bar police investigators from searching their cellphones, which are in police custody, has been denied by a Tel Aviv court.

The four appellants are suspected of witness tampering for allegedly intimidating Shlomo Filber, the former Communications Ministry director general. Filber turned state’s evidence in the criminal investigation against Netanyahu over the prime minister’s ties to the controlling shareholder of Bezeq telecommunications. Netanyahu is suspected of bribery, fraud and breach of trust for taking steps that benefited Bezeq shareholder Shaul Elovitch in return for favorable coverage on Bezeq’s news site, Walla.

The four advisers – Netanayhu spokesman Jonatan Urich; Ofer Golan, the prime minister’s media adviser; and two other advisers, Israel Einhorn and Yossi Shalom – are suspected of being behind an incident on August 29 in which a van with a loudspeaker parked in front of Filber’s home, blaring accusations against him. Filber was not home at the time and only learned about it on Twitter. Although he notified the police about the incident, he did not file an official police report.

The advisers claim that the police searched their phones in violation of procedure. The police admitted that the investigator who confiscated Urich’s phone did not tell him he could refuse.

Following the Tel Aviv District Court’s denial of the appeal, lawyers for the four advisers asked that the search of the phones be delayed so that they could submit permission to file a further appeal with the Supreme Court.

In the initial decision in the case last month, Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court Judge Ala Masarwa ruled that a “surgical” search of the cellphones was permissible. The judge accepted the state’s suggestion to have a police officer from outside the unit handling the matter sort through the material on the phones and present it to the court so that it can make a decision as to what can be examined further. The police committed to look only at messages between August 28 and 30 and only messages relating to the alleged harassment of Filber.

In denying the appeal on Tuesday, District Court Judge Abraham Heiman called Masarwa’s initial ruling “well-reasoned” and said that if he had been called upon to rule on the initial case, he wouldn’t have decided otherwise.

Nevertheless, Heiman said, the police did not conduct themselves according to the law and should have obtained a search warrant before confiscating the phones. Under the circumstances, he added, it would have been impossible to obtain true consent from the four.

The Shin Bet security service acknowledged that when it came to two of the four advisers, there was no informed consent.

“The [district] court accepted our arguments that the police had acted without authority and in violation of the law,” said Ofer Golan’s lawyer, Amit Hadad, after Tuesday’s ruling. “Our disagreement with the court is the significance of that unauthorized act. It is precisely that point that we would bring to the Supreme Court.”

Golan and Urich stated: “The courts’ conduct sends a shocking public message to the police: Show contempt for the law, continue trampling on the rights of the individual and have no fear, because the judge will come to your rescue in any event. The Supreme Court has to put an end to the Wild West behavior of the police and make it clear to them that the State of Israel is a country of law that even the police are subject to.”