Analysis

Israeli Telecom Titan's Corruption Affair Edges Closer to Netanyahu

The latest revelation of the prime ministers multiple meetings with Bezeq controlling shareholder Shaul Elovitch strengthens the suspicions against him

Shlomo Filber, Shaul Elovitch and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Emil Salman, Eyal Toueg, Alex Kolomoisky

Last weeks news that Benjamin Netanyahu met with Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of telecom giant Bezeq, at least seven times from 2013 to 2015 again raises the troubling question of why the prime minister isnt being investigated in the Bezeq affair.

Some of the meetings – which can no longer be denied – took place when Netanyahu was also serving as communications minister and was involved in decisions that benefited Bezeq, Israels biggest telecommunications company. For instance, the ministry acted to lift the separation between Bezeqs operating units, which had complicated the companys ability to buy Elovitchs stake in the Yes satellite television venture.

As it turns out, the Yes deal was critical for Elovitch, so critical that he ended up being investigated by the Israel Securities Authority over the deal and may, along with a host of other executives reporting to Elovitch, face indictment.

The Prime Ministers Office portrayed the relationship between Netanyahu and Elovitch as a personal friendship going back many years and including their spouses. Well, maybe, but Netanyahu never declared this critical fact when he awarded himself the communications portfolio.

The fact that Netanyahu never did so is very problematic. Nor did he reveal to the state comptroller his connection even though he was asked about it, according to a comptroller report published in July. Netanyahu reportedly dealt with at least 12 issues relating to Bezeq during his stint as communications minister from 2014 to 2017 but never told anyone on the record about his relationship with the man who owns the company.

The Bezeq affair has been investigated by the securities authority. It has focused on alleged offenses by Elovitch and various executives in the Bezeq group. The Netanyahu connection has only come out indirectly with the allegations against Shlomo Filber, the Netanyahu ally who was a Communications Ministry director general under Netanyahu.

The security authoritys investigations unit is authorized to investigate suspicions not connected to its central task of enforcing securities law. Thats how it could include Filber in its probe and might do likewise with Netanyahu if it sees fit.

According to a press statement by the securities authority, Filber, who was appointed by Netanyahu in 2015, is suspected of ongoing and deliberate activity ... to advance the interests of Bezeq, not just on one occasion, while concealing it from ministry officials, including the legal officials at the Communications Ministry and relevant officials in other government ministries. And Netanyahu? Could he possibly have not known?

Even if Netanyahu didnt know a thing about Filbers activities, the fact that he didnt reveal his personal ties with Elovitch raises suspicions that an offense occurred.

Its clear that the attorney general, Avichai Mendelblit, played a role in decisions taken in the securities authoritys investigation, and this means Netanyahus involvement was noted by the investigators. Yet the prime minister was never questioned.

A year earlier, Mendelblit believed relations between Netanyahu and Elovitch were close enough that he ordered Netanyahu to recuse himself from all Communications Ministry business involving Elovitch and his companies.

Compare this with former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. He was convicted of breach of trust in connection with the Industry and Trade Ministrys Investment Center for failing to declare his friendship with attorney Uri Messer, even as he was making decisions as industry minister that involved Messers clients.

This was the first and clearest of Olmerts many corruption convictions. The court ruled that there was no need to prove anything irregular about Olmerts decisions – it was enough to show conflicts of interest for a public official to be convicted of breach of trust.

If Netanyahu was responsible for ministry decisions taken in connection with Elovitch and never acknowledged his tie, the issue of breach of trust is clear. If he knew those decisions would earn him favorable coverage on Bezeqs Walla news site, the suspicions go a level higher and turn into suspicions of bribery.

Last week the government responded to a petition on the Bezeq affair by the Movement for Integrity showing that the Tel Aviv prosecutors office had returned the case to the securities authority for further investigation.

Could that mean the probe is widening to include Netanyahu? The states response is somewhat ambiguous but certainly doesnt reject it. The decision, as always with Netanyahu, is in Mendelblits hands.