Netanyahu Confidants Named as Bribery Suspects in New Case

Netanyahu's former spokesman and hand-picked official suspected of accepting bribes ■ Police have evidence that news website skewed coverage to favor Netanyahu and his wife

Clockwise from top left: Shaul Elovitch, Nir Hefetz, Stella Handler, and  Shlomo Filber.
Moti Milrod

The two confidants of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who were arrested on suspicion of involvement in the telecommunication corruption investigation are Nir Hefetz, Netanyahu’s former spokesman, and Shlomo Filber, director general of the Communications Ministry. Netanyahu held the communications portfolio for two years, from 2015 to 2017.

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Hefetz and Filber are suspected of accepting bribes and obstruction of justice as part of what is known as Case 4000. Bezeq’s controlling shareholder, Shaul Elovitch, a friend of Netanyahu’s, has been arrested on suspicion of giving bribes. Police investigators showed him evidence that he had skewed coverage on the Walla news website he owns to favor Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, including text messages that Netanyahu associates sent to Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua, in which the senders asked to alter or delete items posted on the site about the prime minister or members of his family.

Nir Hefetz at the Tel Aviv District Courthouse for the Case 4000, February 18, 2018.
Moti Milrod

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Hefetz, Filber and Elovitch will all remain in detention until Thursday. Filber is also suspected of aggravated fraud, breach of trust and securities offenses. Elovitch is suspected of aggravated fraud, breach of trust in a corporation, securities offenses and money laundering. Others who have been arrested on suspicion of giving bribes are Bezeq CEO Stella Handler, who allegedly intervened in what went on at Walla; Elovitch’s wife, Iris, who is also suspected of intervening in Walla’s coverage and Elovitch’s son, Or, CEO of Eurocom, through which his father holds his Bezeq stake. Also arrested was Amikam Shorer, a vice president at Eurocom who is considered Elovitch’s right-hand man.

A former media adviser about Elovitch was arrested Tuesday and questioned by the police. The adviser has already been questioned in the past and according to suspicions he put Bezeq officials in touch with the Communications Ministry. Meanwhile, Boaz Stambler, another former spokesman for Netanyahu who now serves as head of Israel's Government Press Office, also gave testimony to the police.

On Monday the former director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, Harel Locker, gave evidence to police, as did David Sharan, the former head of Netanyahu’s bureau, who is suspected of accepting bribes in the submarine affair (Case 3000). Numerous others have also been summoned by police, among them journalists and Netanyahu associates.

Stella Handler, CEO of Bezeq, at the Tel Aviv District Courthouse, February 18, 2018.
Moti Milrod

Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court Judge Ronit Poznanski-Katz, who extended the detention of the three main suspects Sunday, said the suspicions looked reasonable and well-grounded. She said the suspicions being examined now are a step above the previous stage of the Bezeq investigation.

Hefetz, who in recent years has been a personal spokesman for Netanyahu and his wife, is considered one of the couple’s closest confidants. During Netanyahu’s second term as prime minister, he headed the Prime Minister’s Office’s public diplomacy department, and in the last election he was the lead strategic adviser to the Likud campaign. In the past he had held a number of jobs at Yedioth Ahronoth and was editor-in-chief of Maariv when it was owned by Nochi Dankner, and later served as a personal consultant.

Hefetz’s name has also been linked to the Yedioth quid-pro-quo affair, also known as Case 2000, because Netanyahu suggested to Mozes to use Hefetz as the point man between himself and Yedioth. Hefetz also gave evidence in the telecom case to the Securities Authority two months ago, when he was asked about his relationship with Filber.

Shlomo Filber at the Tel Aviv District Court for the Case 4000, February 18, 2018.
Moti Milrod

In November the Securities Authority completed its own investigation into the telecom case, which focused on the merger of Bezeq and Yes and the suspicion that Filber had passed classified inside information from the Communications Ministry to Bezeq. Authority investigators recommended charging Filber after they found documents relating to Bezeq that he’d given to Handler with his comments added.

Recently there was evidence uncovered about an improper give-and-take relationship between Netanyahu and Elovitch, which is what led to the wave of arrests Sunday. During the court hearing Sunday, the Securities Authority attorney, Eran Shacham-Shavit, said, “Since the last investigation there have been significant developments that raise suspicions of a series of violations.” Now the authority is working with the police’s economic crimes unit, accompanied by the head of the state prosecution’s taxes and economics department, attorney Liat Ben Ari, who last week received the police recommendations in Case 1000 — in which Netanyahu is suspected of taking lavish gifts in return for favors — and Case 2000.

Netanyahu has denied acting on Bezeq’s behalf for unacceptable reasons. “The prime minister did not act to benefit Elovitch and Bezeq, not in exchange for favorable coverage or for anything else,” he said this week. “This is another futile investigation under media pressure, after the air was released from [Cases] 1000 and 2000 and it turned out that there was no air in 3000, the media created tremendous pressure to produce a new balloon, 4000. All the air will come out of this one, too. All the decisions made about Bezeq were in accordance with recommendations by professional committees and professional officials.”

Bezeq’s controlling shareholder, Shaul Elovitch, at the Tel Aviv District Courthouse, February 18, 2018.
Moti Milrod

A statement released on Elovitch’s behalf said, “Shaul Elovitch categorically denies the allegations against him. We suggest being patient and not hastening to draw conclusions. We are confident that when things are clarified, it can be proven that he did no wrong.”

Hefetz’s lawyer, Yaron Kostelitz, said, “I am convinced that at the end of the investigation it will emerge that Mr. Hefetz is not a suspect and he will return to his affairs.”

Attorney Nati Simhoni, who is representing Handler, said, “Handler is cooperating fully with her questioning and completely denies the allegations against her. We believe it was possible to avoid arresting her and we hope her freedom will not be denied beyond this. Handler is confident in her innocence and that in time her case will be closed.”