Analysis

The Evidence That Swayed the Israeli Attorney General in Netanyahu's New Media Case

The recordings, the texts, the e-mails and detailed testimonies in 'Case 4000' have changed Mendeblit's approach, and it seems Netanyahu has taken note

Israel's Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit in Beit Shemesh, February 26, 2018
\ Ilan Assayag

Police will question Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday morning about the Bezeq-Walla telecom case, impressing on him at last that this is serious.

They will ask Netanyahu at his residence about suspicions that he took bribes from Shaul Elovitch, controlling shareholder of Bezeq and its popular news site Walla. In a separate room, they will interview his wife. She too may be asked about the same bribery allegations directed against others involved in the criminal case.

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The recordings, text messages, emails and detailed testimonies of those involved in the Bezeq-Walla case have convinced Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit that this case is different. The sourness with which Mendelblit approached the previous cases isn’t perceptible this time.

Ariel Sharon was the last prime minister to be questioned about bribery on such a scale. He was polite to his interrogators and cordially invited them to “have some burekas.” It is doubtful such a benign atmosphere will prevail in the Balfour residence this time.

“Criminal cases talk,” Mendelblit told senior Justice Ministry officials. He was referring to the soundtrack accompanying the case – Elovitch’s recorded instructions to Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua to slant the coverage in Netanyahu’s favor; the clear text and email messages exchanged among those involved in the case; the witnesses and suspects who provided a direct link between Walla’s slanted coverage to the government’s moves in favor of Bezeq. Former Communications Minister director-general Shlomo Filber’s confession also played a major role in the turn the investigation has taken.

Unlike the previous cases, the Bezeq-Walla investigation is not expected to stretch for many months, but to be decided together with the cigars-and-champagne and Yedioth Ahronoth cases. The three are intertwined and complement each other.

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On the eve of the establishment of Netanyahu’s fourth government, following his sweeping, surprising election victory three years ago, a few senior Likud figures were very bitter. The most prominent was Gilad Erdan, who, contrary to the prime minister’s promise, did not receive the foreign affairs portfolio. In the two years before the elections, Erdan, as communications minister, had irked Elovitch. The reforms Erdan promoted were estimated to cost Bezeq hundreds of millions of shekels a year.

On May 18, 2015, four days after the cabinet was sworn in without him, Erdan announced he would submit a bill that constituted a mortal blow to Bezeq. It would turn the telecom giant into an infrastructure company, and force it to sell its holdings in services and content, including Walla.

“In recent years Bezeq took every possible step to obstruct and delay the land-line reform, which would have lowered the public’s phone expenses by tens of percent,” Erdan said. At the end of that week, Walla published the regular column of its political reporter Omri Nahmias, “Faction of One.”

“Erdan fulfilled all his ministerial duties successfully,” Nahmias wrote, “and believed he’d find his place at the cabinet table this time too.” The article appeared as the site’s lead story very briefly, then was expunged at management’s instructions. Editor-in-chief Avi Alkalai was heard saying at the time, “We must fight Erdan.”

A week later the bill was scrapped when Erdan landed in the public security minister’s seat. A few days after swearing in his cabinet, Netanyahu fired Communications Ministry director general Avi Berger and replaced him with Filber. Berger, whom Erdan had appointed, had fought bitterly against Bezeq in a bid to oblige the monopoly to carry out the land-line reform.

Last summer, when Filber was grilled by the Securities Authority on suspicion of acting fraudulently to advance Bezeq’s interests at the public’s expense, detectives sensed his understanding of the complicated issues at stake was very limited. They suspected he was a puppet for stronger forces. Now, after turning state’s evidence, Filber is disclosing his operators’ names.