A former Communications Ministry director general said Tuesday that a senior aide to then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had asked him to be “positive” toward the Bezeq telecommunications company and move quickly on its request to buy the Yes satellite television company.
Avi Berger was testifying to the Jerusalem District Court in Netanyahu’s bribery trial. Netanyahu, who was also communications minister at the time, is charged with conferring regulatory benefits on Bezeq in exchange for biased coverage on Bezeq’s internet news site, Walla.
According to the indictment, Netanyahu fired Berger because the latter opposed these regulatory benefits. Berger had been appointed by Netanyahu’s predecessor as communications minister, Gilad Erdan, and lasted only half a year under Netanyahu.
Berger began his testimony by telling the court about a proposed reform to let other telecommunications companies and internet service providers use Bezeq’s telephone and internet infrastructure at a fixed “wholesale” price, which in turn would let them offer consumers cheaper service. Work on this reform had begun even before he entered the job, Berger said.
“The reform had two goals,” he explained. “To create competition in the communications market, which was then a duopoly” comprised of Bezeq and HOT, “and to improve Israel’s infrastructure.”
Bezeq vehemently opposed the reform, Berger said, but after weighing the harm the company would suffer, “We decided that it was proportionate enough given the advantages to the communications market and ordinary Israelis.”
Berger and Erdan held several meetings with Shaul Elovitch, who was then Bezeq’s owner and is also a defendant in the trial. During these meetings, Elovitch tried unsuccessfully to persuade them to scrap the reform.
- Netanyahu Trial: Six Months On, the Wheels of Justice May Be Turning Too Slowly
- Netanyahu on Trial: Everything You Need to Know
- Netanyahu Trial: Website Owner Clearly Intervened to Benefit Netanyahu, Witness Says
Then, after Netanyahu replaced Erdan as communications minister, Berger had another meeting with Elovitch at which the latter implied that Berger would be fired if he didn’t abandon the reform.
“He told me a story about a former Communications Ministry director general who submitted an opinion that Elovitch claimed was untrue ... and said he had trouble finding a job afterward,” Berger recalled. “I understood this as an implied threat and told the [ministry’s] legal adviser and other people. They told me that nothing could be done about it.”
Bezeq also wanted to abolish the structural separation between its different units, which included Yes, the mobile operator Pelephone and the internet and international telecommunications service provider Bezeq International. Erdan objected, arguing that abolishing this separation would turn Bezeq into a monopoly, Berger said.
The minister did agree to approve a merger between Bezeq and Yes, Berger added, but only after the wholesale reform was enacted, because “we all understood that if Bezeq wasn’t given some motivation, it wouldn’t cooperate with us on the wholesale reform.”
After Netanyahu replaced Erdan, however, he ordered Berger to approve the Bezeq-Yes merger even before the reform was approved, Berger said. The prosecution argues that this is one of the benefits Netanyahu gave Bezeq in exchange for favorable coverage from Walla.
The Bezeq-Yes merger in fact took place in 2015, with Netanyahu’s approval. Elovitch earned roughly 1 billion shekels ($310 million) from it.
A few weeks after Netanyahu become communications minister, Berger had his first and last meeting with him. Eitan Tzafrir, Netanyahu’s incoming chief of staff, also attended the meeting. Netanyahu told Berger that Tzafrir would be their liaison, “and that any orders from Eitan Tzafrir were like orders from the prime minister,” Berger said.
Prosecutor Judith Tirosh noted that when questioned by the police, Tzafrir denied this, insisting Netanyahu had merely ordered the two men to work together. “I was told he was the representative and the orders would come through him,” Berger replied. “I stand by my story.”
Berger then related the instructions he received from Tzafrir. “He asked me to be nice to Bezeq and positive toward Bezeq, and also to hurry up and finish handling the Bezeq-Yes deal,” he recalled.
When Tirosh asked how he interpreted the order to be “positive,” Berger replied, “I understood that being positive meant accepting Bezeq’s positions.”
Most of his instructions from Tzafrir were oral, Berger said, and he has no way of knowing whether they actually came from Netanyahu. “He gave me orders over the phone or in his office, and on sensitive issues, in the office.”
Sometimes, Berger requested instructions by email, and Tzafrir occasionally complied. “But usually, nothing was sent,” he added. “These orders were almost always given in private.”
One of the three judges, Moshe Bar-Am, asked why he never complained about this. Berger replied that he did inform the ministry’s legal adviser.
Tirosh then asked for elaboration on Tzafrir’s request to advance the Bezeq-Yes deal. “Tzafrir said I had to handle this deal quickly, and also said I wasn’t obeying orders, I wasn’t moving ahead with it,” Berger replied.
Finally, Berger described his dismissal, just days after a new Netanyahu-led government took office on May 14, 2015. “The government was sworn in on Thursday,” he said. “On Saturday night, the prime minister’s bureau called and said he wanted to talk to me. On Sunday, May 17, I got a phone call. In a conversation lasting a few tens of seconds, he informed me that I wouldn’t stay on as the ministry’s director general.”
Berger is scheduled to face cross-examination by the defense Wednesday.