Shlomo Filber, 55, a lawyer by profession, was a confidant of Benjamin Netanyahu for many years until turning state’s evidence this week in the case looking into the government’s ties with the country’s dominant telecom company, Bezeq.
From 1999 to 2001, Filber chaired the Yesha Council of settlers, before serving as Netanyahu’s bureau chief until 2003, when Ariel Sharon was prime minister. Filber then joined Israel Railways to manage its assets.
Ahead of the last election in March 2015, Filber ran Likud’s campaign. During that time he signed a statement saying Netanyahu had no connection with the free daily Israel Hayom, a dubious statement at best.
Filber was named director general of the Communications Ministry in June 2015, even though he had no relevant experience. He replaced Avi Berger, an engineer and experienced telecom executive.
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Filber’s first decision, in his very first days on the job, was to flout the professional opinion at the ministry and approve the acquisition of the Yes satellite TV company by Bezeq, Israel’s telecom giant that was once an absolute monopoly. The deal, which was worth billions, mattered very much to Bezeq’s controlling shareholder, Shaul Elovitch.
Separately, Filber also accepted Bezeq’s position that a planned “telephony reform” – forcing Bezeq as a monopoly to let competitors use its phone lines – was technologically impossible. This was another utter contradiction of the ministry’s position, which the ministry had fought over in court.
But, accepting Bezeq’s position, Filber chose a different technological model that priced Bezeq lines significantly above what the ministry had decided. (The competing company Hot also provided phone lines, but Bezeq, with more than 50 percent of the market, formally remained a monopoly.)
Filber also delayed the requirement that Bezeq let new competitors install fiber-optic cables using Bezeq lines already put in the ground. The director general argued that the issue was a business dispute and the companies should work it out on their own.
He also vigorously pushed to abolish the “structural separation” forced on Bezeq, which required it to maintain separate managements, administration and real estate for itself and its subsidiaries (Pelephone mobile telephony, Yes cable TV, and the Bezeq International long-distance provider).
Again, the rationale was competition, but Filber openly embraced Bezeq. He even told the news website NRG in June 2016 that “only Bezeq is capable of improving the quality of phone infrastructure in Israel.”
As Filber put it, only two companies, Bezeq and Hot, had physical phone lines, and both should be investing in fiber optics. And how might that happen? “Leave the money with Bezeq and force it to upgrade its infrastructure,” Filber said. “I see Bezeq not as a threat to the market, but as an opportunity that should be utilized well.”
As prime minister, Netanyahu has held a number of other ministerial roles; he became communications minister in 2014. Early last year, under pressure, he gave the portfolio on an acting basis to a close associate, Likud’s Tzachi Hanegbi. Months before, Netanyahu had already empowered Hanegbi to make decisions on Bezeq after Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit ruled that Netanyahu’s relationship with Elovitch disqualified him. Last May, the communications portfolio was given to another Likud Knesset member, Ayoub Kara.
In that 2016 interview with NRG, Filber talked about Netanyahu’s actions as communications minister: “He is the minister and he shapes policy,” Filber said, adding that he identified with Netanyahu’s policy.
Speaking with the Israel Television News Company, formerly Channel 2 News, late last year, Filber – already under investigation – said he wouldn’t turn state’s evidence. In any case, he said, “There was no crime here.”
Last June the state comptroller published an especially caustic report on Bezeq, accusing Filber of contravening the professional opinion at the ministry several times. The comptroller also dwelled on Netanyahu’s conflicts of interest as communications minister and implied that Filber might have served as a way to bypass those conflicts.
In July, following an investigation by the Israel Securities Authority, Filber was placed under house arrest for two weeks on allegations that he had illegally helped Bezeq. He has not been back at the Communications Ministry since.
The securities authority alleged that Filber had “systematically and deliberately – while concealing his work from the professional and legal elements at his ministry” – shown Bezeq people classified documents and internal opinions, correspondence and documents from interministerial committees. According to the securities authority, Bezeq executives routinely shared their opinions with Filber and would give him their “corrections” to ministry papers.
Almost to this day, Filber stuck to his version of events. As elaborated by his lawyer to the civil service commissioner, Filber insisted that his actions were designed merely to prepare the Israeli telecom market for the future, “using virtually the only tool at his disposal” – regulation by unwritten agreement.
Even before his current travails, Filber had been suspected of fraud and breach of trust. Now the corruption allegations have only gotten worse.
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