Israeli Telecoms Titan Bezeq Names Acting CEO Amid Ongoing Police Probe

Yakov Paz will be interim chief executive for at least the next month while Bezeq CEO, Stella Handler, remains under police investigation

Yakov Paz, 2015.
Gilad Kavalerchik

Bezeq announced on Wednesday that it had named Yakov Paz as its interim chief executive for at least the next month while its CEO, Stella Handler, remains under police investigation. Paz, 54, is a vice president and head of Bezeq’s business division. He will also continue to work in that capacity. His appointment as acting CEO, which is effective immediately, came at a special board meeting.

Handler was arrested last week in connection with the wide-ranging investigation at the company, the country’s largest telecommunications firm, into allegations including fraud, bribery and securities offenses. Handler was released from police custody on Monday but remains under house arrest until March 4. A court ordered that she stay away from Bezeq for 30 days.

Along with Handler, Bezeq’s controlling shareholder and former chairman Shaul Elovitch and a number of other officials connected to Bezeq were arrested in the investigation, dubbed Case 4000 by the police. Most have been released from custody although Elovitch, a friend of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, remains in detention. They all deny any wrongdoing. The Bezeq board is expected to appoint a temporary replacement for the company’s vice president for business development, Amikam Shorer, who is a central suspect in Case 4000 and is also currently under arrest.

In Case 4000, the police suspect that, while serving as communications minister between 2014 and 2017, Netanyahu intervened with regulators to help the Bezeq group. In exchange, Elovitch allegedly ordered the Walla news website, which Bezeq owns, to provide favorable coverage of the prime minister and his wife, Sara. The prime minister, who also denies wrongdoing, is scheduled to be questioned by the police on Friday.

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Elovitch, who controls Bezeq through Eurocom, said on Monday that he would step down from the board as would his son and daughter-in-law, a step sought by minority shareholders in the wake of the investigation by the government market regulator.

Eurocom unit B Communications (BCom), Bezeq’s parent, called this week for an emergency board meeting to propose former Bezeq Chairman Shlomo Rodav and Doron Turgeman, CEO of Eurocom subsidiary Internet Gold, as board members. A group of investors led by Israeli-born American businessman Naty Saidoff has proposed biotechnology executive Tamir Cohen as a board member. The group has made an offer to buy Eurocom, which has been accepted by Eurocom’s creditors and submitted to court for approval. Activist investor Elliot Advisors, which owns 4.8% of Bezeq and which has lobbied for changes to the board, has opposed B Communications’ proposals for new board members, saying they had no legal basis.

“The sole purpose of the BCom demand is to cause you, the board of directors of Bezeq, to act for the benefit of the controlling shareholder, against the best interests of the company, its shareholders and the law,” Elliot’s lawyers wrote in a letter to board members. It called for directors who are “professional and objective” to be elected to the board at the annual meeting, which it said should be called promptly.

Bezeq said its board was studying the letter and at this stage was unable to address it.