Analysis

Why Wasn't Netanyahu Allowed to Confront the State Witnesses in His Corruption Probe?

It seems to have been no coincidence that the prime minister chose to make the demand for a confrontation only after the investigation was over

Netanyahu giving a statement on January 7, 2018
Benjamin Netanyahu's Facebook Page

The only response the Justice Ministry spokesman had to the prime minister’s claim Monday – that he had not been allowed a real-time confrontation with the state witnesses against him – was to say: “These are the needs of the investigation.”

The spokesman also declined to say whether Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit had been the one to decide not to allow the confrontations, nor would he say whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s assertion, made during a live televised statement Monday night, was being examined by the attorney general and the state prosecutor.

A confrontation between a suspect and a state witness or a witness for the prosecution is usually staged when their versions of events diverge considerably, and when the investigators want to test their credibility. Sometimes, even when there is very powerful evidence supporting the version of the state witness, the police still arrange a confrontation with the suspect.

>> After his ‘dramatic statement,’ Netanyahu should be barred from live Israeli television | Analysis ■ Netanyahu tries to sell his innocence with Instagram meme blitz | Analysis

The head of the police national fraud squad, the late Ephraim Bracha, recorded Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto offering him a bribe of hundreds of thousands of dollars in the rabbi’s room at the Hilton Hotel in Tel Aviv.

Despite this powerful evidence, it was decided to arrange a confrontation between Pinto and Bracha merely to break down Pinto’s story that Bracha had been receiving payments and favors from him for years. “If I took even one shekel, I’m putting my head on the chopping block and committing suicide,” Bracha shouted during that session.

In Case 4000 (Bezeq-Walla), a number of confrontations were arranged between state witnesses as well as key witnesses and main suspects. State witness Nir Hefetz faced off against Bezeq chief Shaul Elovitch and former Bezeq CEO Stella Hendler. A showdown also took place between state witness Shlomo FIlber and Elovitch and Hendler. And a key witness, Walla CEO Ilan Yehoshua, was confronted with Elovitch and his wife, although Yehoshua’s version of events was considered credible and supported by hundreds of pieces of evidence.

The purpose of these confrontations was to clarify certain points in dispute. Considering how many such sessions were used as investigative tools in the Bezeq-Walla case, it is difficult to understand why the police investigations division and the Justice Ministry did not accede to Netanyahu’s demand to face off against Hefetz and Filber.

It is even more difficult to understand their difficulty now in stating their reasons for not doing so. Did someone there fear that these witnesses – who received very generous deals from the state and no real punishment, although they were suspected of serious offenses – would collapse when faced with their much-admired leader?

And if there was such a fear, should they not have put it to the test? Did they not understand the great value of a confrontation between the doers of the boss’ bidding and the boss, in which the two witnesses would have accused him of everything they had told investigators? Did the Justice Ministry really not understand that Netanyahu would make future use of their decision to forego the encounters?

It seems to have been no coincidence that the prime minister chose to make the demand for a confrontation only after the investigation was over and Mendelblit is about to decide whether to indict him pending a hearing. The premier certainly assumed that Mendelblit would refuse the demand and that he could then play his favored role of persecuted victim. If the matter of the confrontation had burned like a fire in his bones, and if he thought he could extricate himself from the criminal entanglements, he probably would have shouted to the high heavens over it months ago and not waited until this late in the game.

An individual experienced in investigations on Tuesday gave Haaretz a reason why the authorities decided not to stage a confrontation between Netanyahu and the witnesses. That person explained that a confrontation is usually held during the investigation of a suspect when he has no time to prepare.

“They put the witness into his room at short notice, stage a 40-minute face-off, and it’s over. When it’s the prime minister, there’s no such possibility, which damages the effectiveness of the confrontation. What’s more, Netanyahu is in his home court on Balfour Street [his official residence] and the balance of power between him and the witnesses is not equal.” This explanation, which the Justice Ministry could not provide, holds water.

Another person familiar for decades with the realm of investigations proposed a solution: The confrontation between Netanyahu and the two state witnesses could have been by video-conference. Over a decade ago, a video-conference confrontation was held between former Justice Minister Haim Ramon and the female army officer who complained that Ramon kissed her against her will. The police set up a video link between Jerusalem and Guatemala, where the complainant was staying during a post-army trip.

During the coming weeks we will probably hear more from Netanyahu about the injustices done to him during the investigation. The people at the Justice Ministry should equip themselves with more serious explanations than they had this week.