'Call Him, He’ll Understand'

How Netanyahu's Confidant Made Sure Officials 'Acted Nicely'

Details reveal how Netanyahu and his staff worked to help Israel's telecom giant Bezeq by pressuring officials, and then tried to cover the tracks of their alleged deal to see the prime minister get better media coverage in return

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech at the Jewish Federations of North America 2015 General Assembly in Washington
\ REUTERS

In the months preceding his decisive victory in the 2015 election, which surprised even him, several of the seeds that resulted in Benjamin Netanyahu being criminally investigated were sown.

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In late 2014, he fired ministers Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni because they supported a bill to curb the free daily Israel Hayom. He also met secretly with Arnon Mozes, publisher of the rival daily Yedioth Ahronoth, and concocted a deal: favorable coverage in exchange for moves to curtail Israel Hayom.

His talks with Mozes focused on several ministers in the current cabinet, including Moshe Kahlon, whom Netanyahu asked the paper to stop coddling, and the prime minister’s nemesis, Naftali Bennett. Netanyahu, who wanted Bennett as weak as possible, debated with Mozes over whether he would be better served if Bennett and Uri Ariel ran their respective religious Zionist parties on a joint ticket or separately.

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During his weeks of discussions with Mozes, Netanyahu made a decision that’s liable to cost him dearly: taking the communications portfolio for himself. “Likud won’t look favorably on your holding two portfolios,” he told outgoing Communications Minister Gilad Erdan when asking him to trade that ministry for the recently vacated Interior Ministry.

Erdan wanted to remain communications minister, in part to advance a landline telephone reform that would have severely hurt Bezeq, the dominant player in this market. In his last day on the job, Erdan signed regulations to implement the reform. Shortly beforehand, he had asked his ministry’s legal advisor to prepare legislation to dismantle Bezeq’s monopoly, for use as a stick should Bezeq try to sabotage the reform.

In the run-up to the election, Netanyahu met several times with Bezeq’s owner, Shaul Elovitch. During that time, there was increased pressure on Bezeq’s internet news site, Walla, to slant coverage in Netanyahu’s favor.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu was working to help Bezeq, according to evidence gathered by the police and the Israel Securities Authority. A key witness to this is former Communications Ministry director general Avi Berger, who, from the moment his new minister took office, was under pressure to “take steps in Bezeq’s direction.” One of the people suspected of doing the pressuring is Eitan Tzafrir, the minister’s chief of staff. He denies this.

Netanyahu and Hefetz in 2015
Tomer Appelbaum

Netanyahu’s liaison with Tzafrir was Nir Hefetz, a close associate who has turned state’s evidence. He was Netanyahu’s envoy to Bezeq and Walla, and also got involved in Communications Ministry affairs.

For instance, he advised Berger to go along with Netanyahu and “act nicely” if he wanted to keep his job after the elections. The translation was clear: Don’t interfere with efforts to help Bezeq.

During this time, Hefetz was also running Likud’s election campaign. He proposed that a campaign staffer eventually replace Berger.

In the period between the election and the government’s formation, evidence shows that Netanyahu and his staff worked to promote a deal Elovitch wanted – Bezeq’s merger with the satellite television company Yes. Berger objected. Like other senior ministry officials, he thought this should be saved for use as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Bezeq over the landline reform.

A few days after the government was sworn in, Netanyahu fired Berger by phone and replaced him with Shlomo Filber, who has also turned state’s evidence. Netanyahu and the ministry then swiftly approved the merger.

Before firing Berger, Netanyahu consulted a confidant who wasn’t directly involved – Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mendelblit, now the attorney general. “Call him, he’ll understand; I know him,” Mendelblit told Netanyahu, referring to Berger. Back then, he didn’t suspect that Berger’s dismissal and Filber’s appointment were a gift from Netanyahu to his friend Elovitch.

In late 2016, Elovitch was worried by a series of media reports about a mysterious police probe into Netanyahu’s affairs. Fearing that this undercover probe related to his ties with the prime minister, he prepared accordingly. He consulted friends and lawyers, and also met with Hefetz.

Shaul Elovitch in court, February 22, 2018.
Ofer Vaknin

He and Hefetz discussed covering the tracks that connected Walla’s slanted coverage with huge governmental benefits for Bezeq. He then contacted the person responsible for slanting the coverage, Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua, and demanded that he destroy all the evidence. He didn’t know that Yeshua had decided months ago to protect himself by preserving it.

People involved in the investigation said Yeshua was shocked by Elovitch’s request that he obstruct it. This was apparently a watershed moment in their relationship. Suddenly Yeshua began refusing the obsessive orders from his boss to coddle Netanyahu and his wife Sara.

By that point, hundreds of such orders had been given. Sometimes Elovitch and his wife, Iris, contacted Walla executives several times a day to demand alternations in its coverage.

Iris Elovitch was responsible for Sara Netanyahu’s public relations; her husband focused on the prime minister. Some of the requests related to Netanyahu’s rivals, including an order to ignore or tar Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.

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By January 2017, Elovitch could temporarily breathe easy. It turned out the mysterious probe of Netanyahu didn’t relate to Elovitch, but to his competitor Mozes.

Their cases complement and illuminate each other. Both offer a window into Netanyahu’s soul, showing that he was apparently willing to use his governmental powers to obtain docile, obedient media coverage.

Netanyahu and Elovitch are both expected to argue that there’s no connection between Netanyahu’s actions as communications minister and Walla’s editorial decisions; that Netanyahu’s decisions on Bezeq were reasonable and backed by ministry professionals; and that Walla’s coverage wasn’t slanted, but merely obedient to its own editorial policy on fair and balanced coverage. “Walla is the most moderate and fairest media outlet to us,” Hefetz wrote in January 2015, a few weeks before the election.

Both men will also claim they were unaware of their wives’ many unambiguous phone calls and text messages.

These claims will be countered by Hefetz’s testimony and recordings, which, according to people involved in the investigation, show that Netanyahu expected Elovitch to serve him. Evidence from Yeshua, Filber and others will also bolster the case that the two main players were well aware of their quid pro quo relationship.