Police Can Examine Netanyahu Staffers' Confiscated Phones, Judge Rules

Judge makes ruling in response to complaint filed by Netanyahu spokesman Jonatan Urich and others suspected of witness tampering in Case 4000, in which Netanyahu may be indicted for bribery, fraud and breach of trust

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Jonatan Urich, April 2019.
Jonatan Urich, April 2019. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The police have the authority to examine cell phones belonging to four of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's advisers as part of the investigation into the suspected harassment of a state's witness in one of the prime minister's corruption cases, the Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court ruled Wednesday night.

The ruling by Magistrate's Court Judge Ala Masarwa followed the filing of a complaint by a spokesman for the prime minister, Jonatan Urich, earlier in the day over the search of Urich's cell phone by the police.

In his ruling, Judge Masarwa wrote that after deliberating, he had determined that the law permits the search of cell phones belonging to the prime minister's staff people, but the judge also found that there had been improprieties in the police investigation of the four suspects that violated their rights.     

The complaint filed by Urich on Wednesday claimed that police had searched his phone in violation of procedure. The day before, police admitted that the investigator who confiscated Urich's phone did not tell him he could refuse.

Urich and others are suspected of witness tampering directed at former Communications Ministry director general Shlomo Filber in the investigation known as Case 4000. In that case, Netanyahu is suspected of bribery, fraud and breach of trust for taking steps that benefited Bezeq telecommunications controlling shareholder Shaul Elovitch in return for favorable coverage on Bezeq’s news site, Walla.

The four senior Likud campaign officials – Urich, media adviser Ofer Golan, creative director Israel Einhorn and another media adviser – are suspected of being responsible for a van with a loudspeaker being parked in front of Filber’s home and blaring accusations against him.

Filber was not home at the time and only learned about it from Twitter. Although he notified the police of the incident, he did not file an official police report.

On Twitter, Netanyahu called the confiscation of Urich's phone “a terror attack against Israeli democracy and the right to privacy that every citizen should enjoy.”

The offense of which Urich and Golan are accused is harassing a witness under aggravated circumstances, the maximum sentence for which is seven years in prison, police said Wednesday, but they had been questioned on suspicion of harassing Filber without aggravated circumstances. Representatives from the state said the two were aware of the activity near Filber's home and the examination of their phones was necessary to determine who sent the van there and who funded the activity.

The police acknowledged that an investigator had examined  correspondence between Golan and Yair Netanyahu, but claimed that Golan was asked if he consented to it and when he refused, the investigation was stopped.

Golan’s attorney Amit Hadad claimed in a letter send to Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit on Tuesday that the investigator who confiscated Golan’s phone read his correspondence with Netanyahu’s son Yair and other emails. The emails have nothing to do with the Filber case, Hadad claimed.

The head of the state prosecutor's cybercrime department, Haim Weismonsky, appeared on Wednesday on behalf of the state at a hearing on the matter before Judge Masarwa and admitted that at the time of the investigation against Urich and Golan, the police did not have an order allowing them to examine the phones, but added that they had agreed to this and even turned in the phones themselves.

Weismonsky said that Urich consulted with a lawyer before responding to a request to look in his phone. He argued that although the suspects did not give their written consent, this was not a "substantive flaw." Judge Masarwa rejected that argument in the course of the hearing itself. 

The judge said that the investigation conducted against Urich and Golan was flawed in that the police had not sought an order in advance to examine the phones and had not made it clear to the two that they had the right to refuse.

Chief Superintendent Tzahi Ben Hamo of the Economic Crime Unit of the police confirmed that the investigator who was looking at Urich's phone took pictures and saved messages, but added that she stopped doing so when the suspect asked her to.

The police rejected claims that the investigation is being conducted unprofessionally, saying they did not intend to examine correspondence on the phones that was unrelated to the investigation. Furthermore, the Justice Ministry and police stated that seizing the phones was required for the purposes of the investigation.