Analysis

Seven Myths Netanyahu Is Peddling to the Public in the Bezeq Corruption Case

The main claims being raised by Netanyahu and his cronies, and the truth as it appears in the investigative material

The smokescreen being put up by Benjamin Netanyahu surrounding the Bezeq case includes accusations in all directions. Thus they are trying to taint Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit’s expected decision to prosecute the prime minister in the affair, known as Case 4000.

Netanyahu, who was communications minister at the time, allegedly granted regulatory favors to then-Bezeq controlling shareholder Shaul Elovitch. In exchange, investigators believe, Elovitch’s Walla news website gave Netanyahu positive coverage starting in 2012.

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These are the seven main claims being raised by Netanyahu and his cronies, followed by the truth as it appears in the investigative material.

1. The Justice Ministry has documents showing everything was proper.

The Justice Ministry is responsible for the ministers’ paperwork documenting conflicts of interest. It was supposed to draft a document enjoining Netanyahu from involvement in matters relating to Elovitch, in light of the two men’s close personal connection. But this happened only close to two years after Netanyahu became communications minister. Why? Because he lied to the Justice Ministry and failed to disclose his connections to Elovitch when he took on the position.

Furthermore, after Haaretz published an expose and Netanyahu acknowledged his friendship with Elovitch, the Communications Ministry simply didn’t give the Justice Ministry a list of 12 issues related to Elovitch that Netanyahu had been involved with. According to the state comptroller, this list was crucial in order to understand whether Netanyahu had taken significant action regarding Bezeq.

2. Netanyahu only signed documents that were handed to him.

It’s true that Netanyahu barely was directly involved in the communications market — his appointment diary shows this. He left matters entirely to Shlomo Filber, a trusted associate and the ministry’s director general at the time. Filber, who has turned state’s evidence in the case, told investigators he acted to advance Bezeq’s interests, in accordance with Netanyahu’s instructions. So it’s true that Netanyahu “only signed,” but his right-hand man followed his directives to help Elovitch.

Netanyahu is suspected of helping Elovitch in several ways, including regarding Bezeq’s 2015 acquisition of multichannel television company Yes for 1 billion shekels ($276.5 million).

3. There are no documents showing ministry bureaucrats objected to the Bezeq-Yes deal.

Approval for this deal is considered the most concrete result of the alleged quid pro quo. The deal was approved over the professional objections of ministry officials, particularly former director general Avi Berger and a deputy director general. Both wanted to use approval of the deal as leverage to push Bezeq to implement the reform opening a wholesale communications market.

But the process never reached the formal stage where either could object to the deal, and thus there are not any known written opinions. But there are other documents that explicitly state the Justice Ministry bureaucrats’ opinion, including Bezeq’s filings with the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange noting that senior ministry officials wanted the deal made conditional. There are also summaries of meetings that include the Communication Ministry professionals’ opinions.

In any case, the final approval was given based on a financial opinion prepared by consulting company Adalya, which was drafted in three business days.

4. Both the Shin Bet security service and the attorney general approved it.

The Bezeq-Yes deal was in the works for more than a decade, and was discussed by multiple entities, including the High Court of Justice. The Shin Bet, for example, had to approve the deal, apparently because it involved companies with significant technological infrastructure. The attorney general was also called on to approve the deal. The Antitrust Authority vetoed the deal, and then approved it in 2014.

But the most important, final stage was the communication minister’s signature. The minister is supposed to consult with the Cable and Satellite Authority officials. At this stage, the most important, Netanyahu is suspected of pressuring authority officials in order to have them conform to Elovitch’s timetable.

5. Bezeq only lost money during Netanyahu’s term.

It’s true that Bezeq has been losing money over the years, primarily due to declining profitability in the cellular communications market and the loss of hundreds of thousands of landline customers, unrelated to Netanyahu. And what happened in the internet field? The wholesale communications market reform launched by Netanyahu’s predecessor, Gilad Erdan, did indeed depress prices, but Bezeq actually profited, and significantly increased its number of internet customers.

Bezeq’s share price also did significantly better than other communications companies under Netanyahu’s tenure, until the investigations began and the market understood that the comfortable regulatory environment would not be continuing.

6. Netanyahu received only two and a half articles in exchange.

The Netanyahu family received in exchange de facto control over the Walla website, via its CEO Ilan Yeshua, including PR pieces about Netanyahu and his wife Sara Netanyahu, censorship of critical articles and apparently the publication of additional articles designed to destroy Netanyahu’s political rivals, including Naftali Bennett.

Even if Walla occasionally ran critical opinion pieces, they didn’t appear prominently on the home page, and thus didn’t receive significant exposure. Ultimately for five years, Netanyahu had the backing and protection of a significant Israeli media outlet. Thus, ultimately is worth much more.

7. No one has ever been indicted for positive coverage.

The relationship between a media outlet and its subjects is indeed sensitive and complicated, and the limits aren’t always clear. But some behaviors would be broadly identifiable as bribes. Ashkelon Mayor Itamar Shimoni was indicted for such an offense in 2017. Shimoni was indicted, among others, for receiving positive coverage from local paper Kol Ashkelon in exchange for financially harming a competing local paper — a business model that looks strikingly similar to the suspicions in Case 2000 involving Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes. It also has significant implications for Case 4000.

File photo: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, March 11, 2018.
REUTERS/Oded Balilty/Pool