Police Question Netanyahu for Over Five Hours; Wife Also Grilled Simultaneously

Police questioned Netanyahu and his wife Sara on suspicion of taking bribes from media mogul as part of the so-called telecom affair

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara attend an inauguration ceremony for a fortified emergency room at the Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon, Israel, February 20, 2018
\ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

Police questioned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara Friday on suspicion of taking bribes from the owner of Israel’s biggest telecommunications company.

Both were interviewed as possible criminal suspects in the case. Police arrived at shortly before 9 at Netanyahu's official home in Jerusalem and left after more than five hours. Meanwhile, Sara Netanyahu was questioned at the police station of Israel's anti-fraud squad near Tel Aviv. The police wanted to question the couple simultaneously to prevent any possibly attempt to obstruct the investigation. Shaul and Iris Elovtich were also interrogated during this time. 

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During the inquiry, Netanyahu claimed his decisions regarding Bezeq were professional and that he never received favorable coverage from Walla.

Sara Netanyahu was confronted with texts sent by her to Iris Elovitch in which she asked for coverage to be altered. 

Shortly after the interrogation, Netanyahu reiterated his innocence in a video posted on his Facebook page, thanking "millions" of Israeli citizens for their support and reassuring them that he "feels confident, because there will be nothing."

Netanyahu is expected to be interrogated again upon his return from the United States next week.

The Netanyahus are suspected of asking Bezeq owner Shaul Elovitch to guarantee them favorable coverage by Walla, a news website Bezeq owns. In exchange, Netanyahu allegedly instructed the Communications Ministry to make regulatory decisions in Bezeq’s favor. At the time, he was serving as both prime minister and communications minister.

In addition to suspected bribery, the Netanyahus are suspected of fraud and breach of trust.

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This is the first time Netanyahu has been questioned in the case, known as Case 4000. He and Sara will be questioned simultaneously.

Police have evidence that Elovitch, Sara Netanyahu and Nir Hefetz, the Netanyahu family’s media advisor, all asked Walla executives to alter the site’s coverage. There is also evidence that various regulatory decisions benefited Bezeq. Former Communications Ministry Director General Shlomo Filber, who has turned state’s evidence, provided the testimony that connects these two facts.

Police also confronted Elovitch with Filber on Thursday.

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An additional individual from the Communications Ministry associated with Hefetz and Netanyahu was brought in for questioning. He was appointed by Netanyahu to the communications ministry before Filber replaced Avi Berger.

Sara Netanyahu is being questioned as a suspect on account of evidence that she asked Walla to alter its coverage. She usually sent these requests through Elovitch’s wife, Iris.

In response to a state comptroller’s report on the subject in July, the prime minister said he has been friends with Elovitch for 20 years and meets with him anywhere from once a year to once every few months. He said their meetings are purely social, usually involving their wives and other friends. He also said he has no financial dealings with Elovitch and has never received loans, campaign contributions or any other money from him.

Regarding his decisions as communications minister, Netanyahu said he never asked Elovitch about these professional issues, but did “talk with him occasionally about the needs of the moment, as he does with the heads of other telecommunications companies.” He also said his friendship with Elovitch had no impact on his decisions as communications minister, and that all those decisions were in line with the recommendations of ministry professionals.

Nevertheless, he did not deny having spoken to Elovitch about issues relating to Bezeq.

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A statement the Justice Ministry gave the comptroller for that report listed 12 issues Netanyahu dealt with as communications minister that related either directly or indirectly to Bezeq. But it said there was no indication that any of those decisions leaned toward Bezeq in an anomalous manner. That is likely to be the basis of Netanyahu’s defense.

But both the law and Supreme Court rulings say that whether decisions were strictly professional or utterly irregular is irrelevant in proving bribery.

For instance, the court convicted former Ramat Gan Mayor Zvi Bar of taking bribes because he accepted money from developers, despite concluding that the building projects he approved were in the public interest. “The crime of bribery takes place even in cases where the public servant who took the bribe didn’t confer any anomalous or unacceptable benefit on the giver,” Justice Isaac Amit wrote.

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit authorized police to question the Netanyahus simultaneously in the Bezeq case, so that they won’t be able to coordinate their stories. In an earlier case, involving expensive gifts of cigars and Champagne from businessmen, they were questioned a few days apart, and Mendelblit was criticized for this.

At a bail hearing for Elovitch and Hefetz this week, prosecutor Judith Tirosh said this is “a very serious case of allegedly giving and taking bribes, of granting sympathetic coverage — and that’s an understatement that distorts reality, and of harnessing a leading website for favorable reporting and editing, in exchange for regulatory benefits by the Communications Ministry, the communications minister and the ministry director general whose value to Eurocom was between 680 million and one billion shekels [$195 million to $287 million].” Eurocom is the company through which Elovitch owns Bezeq.