What are the core issues in this case?
They involve the give-and-take relationship between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the owner of Bezeq telecommunications and the Walla News website, Shaul Elovitch. The main allegation is that Netanyahu, in his capacity as communications minister, enabled Elovitch to obtain financial benefits amounting to hundreds of millions of shekels. In exchange, Netanyahu received favorable coverage for himself and his family, along with negative coverage for his rivals on the site. In legalese, the Israel Police suspect a bribery deal, involving regulatory benefits in exchange for positive media coverage.
How did the affair start?
It all began in May 2015. Two months after winning another term as prime minister, Netanyahu also became minister of communications. In a declaration to the state comptroller he failed to mention that Elovitch was a friend and that the two had close ties relating to the coverage of Netanyahu on Walla.
A Haaretz investigation in October that year revealed how that popular news website, which was under the control of Bezeq, the largest communications monopoly in Israel, became a means for offering Netanyahu certain benefits. The investigation showed how, at a time when serious regulatory decisions were being discussed, the website’s management pressured its journalists to promote positive stories about the prime minister’s wife, which were essentially dictated to them by people close to Netanyahu – among them his then-spokesman Nir Hefetz.
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Negative items about the Netanyahu family were censored, and headlines that may have damaged their image were changed. Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua has clarified more than once that the tendentious reporting constituted implementation of a policy dictated by Elovitch. He also linked the lenient coverage of Netanyahu and his wife to government decisions regarding Bezeq.
When did the investigation begin?
The investigation officially started in December 2017, when Ilan Yeshua was summoned to give testimony at the Israel Securities Authority. He handed over a raft of recordings, phone messages and correspondence between himself and Elovitch, and between himself and Netanyahu’s people, all relating to slanting news coverage. Even though some information about the nature of coverage at Walla had come up during an investigation of Bezeq by the ISA, this information had not been investigated any further.
The police and state prosecutors formally announced the launching of the Case 4000 investigation on February 18, with the arrest of Nir Hefetz, former director general of the communications ministry Shlomo Filber, Elovitch and his wife, and other senior Bezeq officials.
Who are the suspects and what are the police recommendations relating to each one?
Thirteen people have been investigated in this affair.
* Benjamin Netanyahu: accepting a bribe, fraud, breach of trust and accepting favors under aggravating circumstances
* Sara Netanyahu: accepting a bribe, fraud and breach of trust by association (since she is not a public servant, she is under suspicion in conjunction with the prime minister), obstruction of justice and of an investigation
* Yair Netanyahu: similar suspicions to those of his mother, but no evidentiary basis was found for them
* Shaul Elovitch: giving a bribe, obstruction of justice and of an investigation, offenses related to reporting to securities authorities and violation of anti-money laundering laws
* Iris Elovitch: giving a bribe, obstruction of justice and violation of anti-money laundering laws
* Or Elovitch, the couple’s son, who is CEO of Eurocom Communications (a private company at the top of a pyramid through which Bezeq is controlled) and is on the board of directors of several Bezeq subsidiaries: suspected of corporate fraud and breach of trust, and of securities-reporting offenses
* Stella Handler, Bezeq CEO: corporate fraud and breach of trust, securities violations
* Amikam Shorer, Bezeq's chief strategy and corporate development officer: involvement in bribery, and corporate, securities-related and money-laundering offenses
* Zeev Rubinstein, a businessman who was close to Netanyahu and Elovitch, now vice president of Israel Bonds: mediating a bribery transaction and accepting a bribe (in association with someone else)
* Eli Kamir, strategic consultant at Bezeq: no evidentiary basis found for an indictment
* Eitan Tzafrir, former chief of staff at the Communications Ministry: no evidentiary basis found for an indictment
The two others are Nir Hefetz and Shlomo Filber, who have signed a plea bargain, granting them immunity as state witnesses.
What is the main evidence that's known at this point?
Other than the two individuals who have turned state's evidence and are providing detailed testimony, key testimony has been provided by Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua. There is also much material evidence – including recordings, WhatsApp messages and other correspondence by those suspected of involvement in Case 4000, including between confidants of Netanyahu and of Elovitch – regarding the slanting of news coverage.
There is also some correspondence between Elovitch and his wife Iris and Yeshua, in which they linked regulatory concessions to favorable coverage provided in exchange. According to sources involved in the investigation, the evidence reflects the fact that Netanyahu was aware of the reciprocal relationship between him and Elovitch.
In July 2015, shortly after approval of the Bezeq-Yes merger, several instances of correspondence apparently implicated the people involved. When asking Walla staff to provide more positive coverage of the premier and his family, Elovitch apparently said something to the effect that "I have to reward him,” meaning Netanyahu, and added that the prime minister had pleasantly surprised him and had done all he could for him. From time to time Elovitch allegedly sought to promote coverage of issues that were important to Netanyahu. One source familiar with the subject says there were hundreds of such instructions.
What can we expect until state prosecutors decide whether to indict?
Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit has said that the decision on all of the cases pending against Netanyahu cases will be made in one package deal. This is due to the apparent similarity between the cases, the fact that there are common witnesses and that some of the events under investigation overlapped in terms of the time they took place.
Since the police recommendations to indict Netanyahu in Case 1000 and Case 2000 were handed down last February, there have been several complementary actions. The tax and finance department of the State Prosecutor's Office believes that a decision will be made to indict in those two cases, but there is a dispute regarding the nature of the offense allegedly committed by the premier: bribery or fraud and breach of trust. Over the last few weeks there marathon sessions have taken place in State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan’s office regarding these affairs.
State prosecutors now have to file a legal opinion regarding Case 4000. In tandem, Mendelblit has set up another legal team, headed by one of his deputies, Amit Marari, which will render its opinion about the three cases. The legal briefs will be submitted to Nitzan and then to a broad panel of senior legal figures who will review them. Only then will the attorney general decide whether to indict Netanyahu and on what charges.
Estimates are that this will take a few months, probably until mid-2019. Assuming that Netanyahu will be summoned to a hearing, his lawyers may ask for several months to study the briefs, such that a final decision may be made only in 2020.
What is known about the testimony given by those who have turned state's evidence? Who are the key witnesses?
Other than Yeshua, who is considered a key witness, Filber is the most significant witness against Netanyahu. In the past, Haaretz investigative journalist Gidi Weitz reported that a person familiar with the testimony given by the three state witnesses (Ari Harow, Hefetz and Filber) said that none of them has all the information – as Shmuel Dechner had in the Holyland corruption case against former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. However, each of them provides an angle that helps in putting the puzzle together.
In contrast to Dechner, or to those who turned state's evidence in cases against Interior Minister Arye Dery or against former Minister Shlomo Benizri, none of the current three state witnesses is eager to do battle. They admire Netanyahu, each one in his own way, and do not want to be seen as the person responsible for terminating his political career. Filber has said that he worked for the benefit and good of Bezeq under instructions from Netanyahu, and that he was only a messenger.
Hefetz described the frenzy that took hold of the premier during the last election campaign and the mission the "boss" gave him: to ensure positive coverage at Walla. Hefetz also said he was a messenger for Netanyahu, charged with slanting news coverage, and was asked to convey messages between other people ostensibly involved in Case 4000, regarding regulatory issues that affected Bezeq.
What is Netanyahu’s line of defense?
The narratives presented by Netanyahu and Elovitch are quite similar. Their main thrust is that there was no connection between the prime minister's actions with regard to Bezeq and what happened in the corridors of its Walla news site. Netanyahu’s decisions regarding the communications monopoly were reasonable and were supported by professional echelons. The presentation of news developments at Walla was unbiased, but accorded with the policy of its owner, who wanted balanced coverage.
Netanyahu emphatically denies that he requested or obtained favorable media coverage, arguing that he was even sharply criticized on Walla shortly before the 2015 election. The prime minister denies that approval of the Bezeq-Yes merger was in any way exceptional, explaining that his approval of the agreement was similar to the signing of any other document passing over his desk.
Elovitch and Netanyahu say they were unaware of the explicit text messages and apparently intensive phone traffic between their wives, Iris and Sara. Countering this line of defense are Hefetz’s testimony and the recordings he has, which show, according to sources familiar with the investigation, that Netanyahu was expecting Elovitch to serve him in some way.
Can the prime minister remain in office if he is indicted?
While the law does not oblige the prime minister to resign in the event that he is indicted, the High Court of Justice has ruled that a prime minister must remove any government minister who is the subject of a serious indictment.
The usual interpretation of this is that if a minister in such a predicament cannot continue to serve due to loss of public trust in him, the same applies to a prime minister. But unlike in the case of a minister, there is no legal statute specifying who can remove a prime minister from office. Jurists believe this is a complex issue that is not clear cut, which will likely be resolved by the High Court.
What are the suspicions against Netanyahu in other cases and where do they stand now?
According to the police, in Case 1000 Netanyahu and members of his family received champagne, cigars, jewels and clothing from tycoon Arnon Milchan, on request and in a systematic fashion, to the tune of some one million shekels ($270,000). In exchange, Netanyahu allegedly helped Milchan in several ways, including by means of tax benefits and extension of a United States visa.
In Case 2000, Netanyahu is suspected of having a reciprocal relationship with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes, whereby the two agreed that Netanyahu would promote a law that would restrict the circulation of Israel Hayom, the main competitor of Yedioth, and in exchange, Mozes would give Netanyahu favorable coverage in his paper. In both cases the police have recommended indicting Netanyahu on charges of bribery.