Fact-checking Netanyahu's 'Dramatic' Statement on Meeting State's Witnesses

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement live on I24 TV channel at the Prime Minister's Office, Jerusalem, Israel, January 7, 2019.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement live on I24 TV channel at the Prime Minister's Office, Jerusalem, Israel, January 7, 2019.Credit: AFP

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu complained on Monday about the way the police and prosecution were handling the investigations into his affairs, saying that he requested to face state's witnesses in the corruption probes against him and was denied twice.  

But while a suspect may ask the police to allow him to confront his accusers, it is not a given right and the police do not have to acquiesce.

It is not uncommon to allow the confrontation between suspect and witness, which, when done, is usually at the initiative of the police who hope to examine the dynamic between the two. But the police make selective use of such confrontations. In rape cases, for instance, the behavior of the suspect during a confrontation may speak volumes.

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Section 293 of Israel's penal code, titled "Methods of bribery," explains that graft may take myriad forms: "In connection with a bribe it is immaterial… whether it was in cash or in kind, a service or any other benefit," the law states.

Speaking at a Bar Association conference in April, Justice Anat Baron said that corruption can take various forms, among which she noted fawning media coverage. Donating to a nonprofit association dear to the heart of a public official, or providing free advice, are also corruption, she said, adding: "The crime of corruption can also take form when the beneficiary of the benefit is not a public servant but a third person, and even if at the end of the day, no benefit was given" – note the case dubbed "2000" involving a deal for sweetheart media coverage of the Netanyahus by the Yedioth Ahronoth publishing group, which did not ultimately come to fruition.

What the prime minister said in his address to the nation on Monday evening was not accurate. In February 2017, the white-collar crime prosecutors filed charges against Ashkelon mayor Itamar Shimoni for taking bribes from the businessman Alon Davidi in the form of adulatory coverage in the local paper Davidi owns, Kol Ashkelon. Davidi, according to the charges, also bought an internet site that had been critical of Shimoni, and closed it down. It is true that the courts haven't ruled on the matter yet, but the point is that the prosecution feels that sweetheart coverage is a bribe.

On Monday, Netanyahu stated that the prosecution is failing to summon witnesses who have information contradicting the claims against him. For instance, Netanyahu claimed: "I heard that they did not summon the most important regulator in Case 4000, the antitrust commissioner." In the so-called Case 4000, Netanyahu is suspected of giving regulatory concessions to the Bezeq telecoms monopoly, owned by his friend Shaul Elovitch, in exchange for favorable coverage of himself and his family on a popular news site owned by Elovitch, Walla.

Also in the context of Elovitch, permission for his company Bezeq to formally merge with its subsidiary Yes, a cable TV company (the issue at the heart of Case 4000) required the permission of two regulators: the antitrust commissioner, and the Communications Ministry. The merger was approved in 2014 by an acting antitrust commissioner, Assaf Eilat, with a number of contingencies, and this was before Netanyahu took over as communications minister. The professional elements at the ministry had approved the merger, as said with contingencies, including a reform to introduce competition into the wireline market to diminish Bezeq's monopoly over phone lines.

The thing is that those contingencies were removed during Netanyahu's term as communications minister and that of Shlomo Filber as director-general of the Communications Ministry.

Eilat's testimony could bolster Netanyahu's defense that the professional elements had approved the deal and his signature on it was technical. However, the investigators believe that without the intervention by Filber and Netanyahu, the transaction would not have been carried out.

Writing in 2015 about the damage he would sustain if Netanyahu failed to approve the Bezeq-Yes merger, Elovitch stated: “No harm would be caused to the self-righteous reporters, but I would suffer enormous damage. If [Netanyahu] doesn’t sign, there’s no deal.”

Netanyahu also queried Monday why Yair Lapid hasn't been investigated for meeting dozens of times with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Noni Mozes in a secret location in Savyon; destroying documentation of the meetings; and ensuring that the Knesset members in his party Yesh Atid vote in favor of the so-called "Noni Law" that would have closed down rival paper Israel Hayom; and getting favorable coverage.

Case 2000 centers on discussions between the prime minister and Arnon Mozes, the publisher of the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, allegedly involving favorable news coverage for the prime minister in exchange for government policies benefitting Yedioth. But that investigation began serendipitously – because of tapes found on the telephone of former Netanyahu confidant and state's witness Ari Harow. The tapes showed meetings between Netanyahu and Mozes in which they discussed favorable coverage in Yedioth in exchange for weakening Yisrael Hayom.

Presumably if similar tapes had been found documenting Mozes and Lapid talking about adulatory coverage in exchange for hurting Yisrael Hayom, Lapid would also have been questioned.

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