Analysis

The Netanyahu Corruption Case That Changed the Attorney General's Mind

It may have taken more than a couple of years, but when a reluctant Mendelblit was exposed to evidence in the then-secret investigation into Case 4000 he had his lightbulb moment: The prime minister was deeply afflicted with corruption

Benjamin Netanyahu prepares to speak at an event in Jerusalem, April 23, 2018.
Olivier Fitoussi

It's been nearly four years since the Israeli police got the first pieces of intelligence about businessmen giving favors to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara. It was three and a half years ago that recordings were found on the phone of former Netanyahu aide Ari Harow, laying out a bribery deal between the prime minister and Arnon Mozes, the publisher of one of Israel's leading daily newspapers, Yedioth Ahronoth.

More than two years have elapsed since an Israel Securities Authority probe of fraud allegations against Shaul Elovitch, at the time Bezeq controlling shareholder, pointed to the use of Walla News, owned by the telecom giant, to extend favors to Netanyahu in the form of clearly biased coverage.

The indictments announced Thursday against Netanyahu, Mozes and Elovitch were born late after great labor pangs. There were moments, mainly toward the beginning, when Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, assuming the role of midwife, was reluctant to bring the gestating infants into the world and questioned their ability to hold themselves up.

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit arrives at a press conference to announce indictments against Netanyahu, Jerusalem, November 21, 2019.
Emil Salman
Haaretz Weekly Ep. 50Haaretz

The turning point came early in 2018, when Mendelblit was gradually exposed to evidence in the then-secret investigation, later dubbed Case 4000: the police statement by Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua swearing to the Netanyahu family's aggressive appropriation of the website, with the blessing of the big boss; the exchange of blunt text messages among the main players; the attempt to obstruct the investigation in a mafia-style late-night meeting at a house in a tony north Tel Aviv suburb, and statements by senior Communications Ministry officials testifying to significant regulatory benefits handed to Elovitch.

Case 4000 was Mendelblit's lightbulb moment: The attorney general realized that Netanyahu was deeply afflicted with corruption. It is from that moment that this case and the other pending investigations against the prime minister were immediately fast-tracked.

Forgetful witness

The Walla-Bezeq-Netanyahu-Elovitch saga played out over four years, but its Archimedean point lasted just "a quarter-hour, 20 minutes," to quote witness turned state's evidence Shlomo Filber. It was what became known as the "armchair meeting" in the prime minister's office in mid-2015, right after Netanyahu decided to cast Filber, his campaign manager – "I brought him 30 Knesset seats," the witness humbly noted – in the role of director general of the Communications Ministry.

In 2017 Filber was questioned as a suspect by the Israel Securities Authority after multiple pieces of evidence pointed to his serving as a Bezeq agent within the Communications Ministry. Filber claimed his actions on behalf of the monopoly were his own idea, and the watchdog agency recommended that he be charged with fraud and breach of trust. A few months later, Case 4000 blew up and Filber was arrested. After two days of questioning, he turned state's evidence.

The most important information that Filber gave police detectives was his description of a meeting that began at Netanyahu's desk before moving to a seating area in a corner of the office. The prime minister issued orders to Filber: Help Elovitch facilitate Bezeq's purchase of 1 billion shekels ($280 million) in shares of the Yes satellite television company from Elovitch’s privately-held company Eurocom and tone down the proposed reform of the wholesale cellphone market to align with Bezeq's interests. Filber demonstrated for the investigators the downward hand gesture that Netanyahu used.

Shaul and Iris Elovitch attend a hearing at the Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court, August 30, 2018.
Moti Milrod

In the pre-indictment hearing that Mendelblit presided over in early October, the defense lawyers tried to undermine the bribery theory in innumerable ways, focusing on Filber's incriminating statements. Filber is considered a harder nut to crack than Nir Hefetz, the second key witness in the case turned state's evidence, who has admitted that "memory isn't my strongest suit."

Filber's statements were proportionate and modest, and did not reek of a desire for revenge. Mendelblit recognized in the investigatory stage that his testimony was the most important to the case.

So did Netanyahu, presumably. It was no coincidence that the prime minister asked to confront the witnesses on live TV, or that people close to him sent a sound truck to Filber's home. Filber's withdrawal could have save Netanyahu from the bribery charge in his indictment. His testimony in court would surely be a key moment in this saga.

Stockholm syndrome

Criminal law is sometimes there to protect the majority from wealthy and powerful individuals who have conspired among themselves. In this respect, the indictments in Case 2000 and Case 4000 serve a critical social function.

Over the past couple of decades, greedy publishers and business people tried to use their media outlets and the journalists who worked in them as pawns in the service of financial interests, trampling the principles of freedom of expression and the press. They censored investigative reports and ordered their employees to attack politicians who didn't serve them and their allies in high places. They thought their money gave them license to sell their audiences fake news that would reward the media tycoons with regulatory favors at the expense of the public interest.

"What interests me is making money," Mozes told Netanyahu in one of their secret, recorded meetings. "It's annoying that we can't repay the big one because of a bunch of zeros," Elovitch told Yeshua, complaining about the journalists he hired at Walla.

Despite multiple warning signs throughout the years in the form of investigative reports and op-eds sounding the alarm about the unholy ties between politicians and news publishers, the people involved never imagined finding themselves questioned by the police. They were under the illusion that with power, comes immunity.

2000breach

Incredibly, in recent months journalists have joined the efforts by Netanyahu and his associates to minimize the enormous significance of cases 2000 and 4000. They told their audiences that the toxic dialogue between Netanyahu and Mozes was no different than conversations that David Ben-Gurion had with newspaper publishers in his day, and that Elovitch's daily pleading with his people to satisfy the Netanyahus' whims was at most the "flattery of a regulator" on the part of an unimportant media outlet.

Instead of recognizing that the trials would protect them and their profession, their freedom of expression and their mission to expose governmental misconduct, these journalists were infected with Stockholm syndrome, identifying with their persecutors.

'End up like Olmert'

Before Thursday's announcement, Avigdor Lieberman estimated that Mendelblit would not charge Netanyahu with bribery, and if he did it would increase the likelihood that a government would be formed over the 21-day period since Benny Gantz announced he had failed at the task.

It's hard to say whether Lieberman was right, and harder still to guess how Netanyahu will behave. People who met with him over the past few weeks say he occasionally sought to be alone with his thoughts.

Netanyahu has three options now: He can again try to claim immunity from prosecution; he can fight the charges in court, or he can try to arrange for a plea bargain that would exile him from government but guarantee that he "won't end up like [Ehud] Olmert," as he once told a billionaire friend, referring to the former prime minister who was jailed over corruption.

The question is whether the office of the attorney general is still open to a plea deal, after Netanyahu's months-long dirty campaign to discredit it and its employees, not to mention Thursday evening's disgraceful, embarrassing, post-indictment-announcement display of victimization and incitement.

The witnesses in the various cases against Netanyahu, who worked alongside him for years, described him as having a dual personality: on the one hand, a suspicious, very cautious, calculating and instrumental personality, who keeps some secrets even from those closest to him; on the other hand, a who readily loses his sense of balance and his reality check functioperson n when luxuries from businessmen for him and his family are involved, and especially when it comes to his depiction in important media outlets, so critical in his eyes to his political survival.

Sheldon Adelson speaks to Naftali Bennett during the inauguration of the medical school at Ariel University, October 27, 2018.
Moti Milrod

Sheldon Adelson, whose free daily Israel Hayom elevated Netanyahu to near-divine status, aptly described the irrational side of the prime minister's personality. "He complained that he didn't get enough press in his favor," the Jewish American billionaire and political donor told police.

These pathologies are what brought down Netanyahu. They are what caused him to cross the red lines and they are what turned him into the first sitting Israeli prime minister to be charged with accepting bribes.