Netanyahu’s Corruption Trial Shifts to the Other Side of the Bribery Equation

For the first time in the courtroom, the words 'Netanyahu told me' were heard

Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel
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Testimony of former Director General of the Ministry of Communications Avi Berger, last week.
Testimony of former Director General of the Ministry of Communications Avi Berger, last week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel

A new testimony by a former senior figure in the Communications Ministry shifts Netanyahu's bribery trial focus to alleged favors for Israel’s largest telecommunications company in return for positive media coverage.

Up until the current testimony given by Avi Berger, the former director-general of the Communications Ministry, Netanyahu's case 4000 dealt with what media mogul Shaul Elovitch — the controlling shareholder of the Bezeq telecommunications company– allegedly gave Netanyahu via his Walla! News website.

While the previous witnesses in the trial might have never met Netanyahu, Berger exposed the courtroom to the goings-on in Netanyahu’s bureau. For the first time in the courtroom, the words "Netanyahu told me" were heard.

Berger testified that Netanyahu intervened to help Bezeq before he was dismissed. He told of a meeting he had with Netanyahu, in the presence of the head of a management team Berger had set up, Eitan Tzafrir.

“The Prime Minister told me I had to do whatever Eitan told me to,” he said. Later, he added, Tzafrir told him to “show a positive attitude toward Bezeq.” Berger understood that this meant approving the merger, even though he didn’t recall it being stated explicitly.

He admitted that he didn’t know whether Tzafrir’s orders were coming from the Prime Minister himself, and said that Harel Locker and Amir Barkan from the Prime Minister’s office demanded that he advance the deal.

Elovitch’s attorney Jacques Chen confronted Berger with his statements at the Securities Authority, according to which he was instructed to formulate a brief on the deal, not to further its implementation.

The bigger picture: Eurocom Communications, under Elovitch’s ownership, ran up debts which it found difficult to repay. Elovitch came up with a solution: Eurocom would sell its satellite TV station Yes to Bezeq, which he also owned, thereby transferring funds from his rich hand to his poor one.

The merger of Bezeq and Yes required the approval of then-Communications Minister Gilad Erdan. Berger, who worked under Erdan, ignored Bezeq and Yes requests for a year.

At that time, the Communications Ministry wanted to use Bezeq’s dependence on it to advance a reform in the wholesale cellphone market.

Bezeq owned all internet and land-lines in Israel at the time, making it difficult for other companies to compete. Erdan wanted to compel Bezeq to allow other companies to use its infrastructure, thus enabling competition which would reduce prices for consumers, but the company held fast to its monopoly.

When the Bezeq-Yes merger deal came up, the ministry’s message was: allow the reform to proceed, and we’ll approve the merger. This condition, labeled “the binding,” was never anchored in writing, but Berger testified that company directors were aware of it.

According to the indictment, Elovitch complained about the binding to the Prime Minister, who came to his assistance. Erdan was then moved to head the Interior Ministry and Netanyahu himself replaced him as Communications Minister.

After the 2015 election, which the prosecution claims was accompanied by a peak in the slanted news favoring Netanyahu on Walla!, he retained the portfolio, fired Berger and appointed Shlomo Filber to replace him.

Berger also related to a letter signed by Netanyahu and addressed to the head of the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Council, in which he requested that the deal be pushed forward. According to the prosecution, Tzafrir wrote that letter after Netanyahu has asked him what could be done.

The defense argues that Netanyahu only signed the letter, which was composed by the communication ministry’s legal counsel. “The letter didn’t disclose our position,” said Berger, while Chen again tried to distance Netanyahu from steps taken to advance the merger.

During Berger’s cross-examination, Netanyahu’s spokesman told of a “drama,” referring to the words of prosecutor Yehudit Tirosh, according to which there was never a claim that Berger was dismissed in an attempt to clinch the merger.

This was not something new: the prosecution was careful not to determine the reasons for the dismissal. The indictment states that at the time “Netanyahu only knew about Elovitch’s complaints against Berger and that he wanted Berger removed.”

Netanyahu’s attorney Boaz Ben-Tzur said the dismissal was legitimate after the ministers had changed, and was not part of a bribery deal. “This doesn’t appear in the indictment, but people can draw the conclusion that this was the underlying motive.”

Tirosh said that this was important from the public’s perspective, as “many reports said explicitly what prosecutors had only hinted at, namely, that Berger was removed so that the merger could proceed.

Berger believed it was because of his defiant stance against Bezeq, as did Erdan, who promoted a bill designed to hurt Bezeq after he was excluded from the cabinet. The prosecutor dissociated herself from making such a connection.

Another issue that came up during Berger's testimony touches upon Erdan's last days at the Communication's Ministry.

Erdan asked Netanyahu to remain in office for a few more months so that he could complete his reform. Netanyahu postponed Erdan’s transfer only by a few weeks, during which the latter managed to do so, to Elovitch’s chagrin, something the defense claims contradicts the claim that Netanyahu was looking after Bezeq’s interests.

Many of the cross-examinations in the trial were dedicated to clarifying what were the positions of professional regarding the merger. The defense claims that the Communications Ministry never had a clear policy regarding the merger, and has presented a brief by the Antitrust authority stating that the merger could go ahead under conditions that would enable competition.

Berger said the ministry’s position was clear, backed by an email confirming that Erdan wanted to link the merger to the cellphone reform. The prosecution argued that this created Elovitch’s dependence on Netanyahu, who exploited it for obtaining positive media coverage while advancing the tycoon’s interests.

The claim for a lack of clear policy strengthens another line of defense, according to which Berger had acted on his own, having worked previously for Partner, a Bezeq competitor, and he called for similar reforms as the CEO of Partner.

When the defense accused Berger for lobbying Partner in the Communications Ministry, Berger exclaimed: "I was nobody's lobbyist." The judge rejected the idea that Berger was in a conflict of interest and noted that Berger didn't have anything to do with Partner since having left.

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