Police to Question Netanyahu Friday as Possible Suspect in Telecom-giant Bribery Case

Israeli news channels reported that police will take testimony from Netanyahu and his wife at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations, Jerusalem, February 21, 2018.
Olivier Fitoussi

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to be questioned under caution as a possible suspect in the Bezeq bribery affair (Case 4000), and his wife Sara is to be questioned in the case as well, Israeli television news channels reported on Wednesday. Police are slated to take testimony from the two in the Prime Minister’s Residence on Friday.

At the heart of Case 4000 is the suspicion that Netanyahu acted to provide Bezeq and its former chairman, Shaul Elovitch, with financial breaks worth hundreds of millions of shekels in exchange for positive coverage in the telecommunications company’s popular Walla website. The prime minister has rejected the accusations and insisted that all his decisions “were made in businesslike fashion and based on professional factors, professional testimonies and legal counsel.”

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In the “cigars-and-champagne” affair, Case 1000, police sought to investigate the Netanyahu couple simultaneously to prevent them from possibly coordinating their testimony and obstructing justice, but Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit rejected the request. A legal observer has told Haaretz that the testimony that tycoon Arnon Milchan provided investigators regarding the gifts he gave the Netanyahus was so strong and detailed that the attorney general didn’t see a need to question the couple at the same time.

Channel 10 reported on Wednesday the contents of a text message that Sara Netanyahu sent Elovitch’s wife, Iris. “You all are killing me,” she wrote in 2015, after seeing a report on Walla she didn’t like. “You are slaughtering us. You are destroying the country. What kind of a site is this? What should it be? Change it. Do something about it. You are the site owners, and it should happen quickly.”

In a previous message between Sara Netanyahu and Iris Elovitch that was published, the prime minister’s wife wrote in the wake of a report she didn’t find flattering: “This can’t go on this way. I though we spoke about this. Why do I need to read such things on your website?”

Police suspect that while Shlomo Filber was director general of the Communications Ministry, Bezeq benefitted economically from four regulatory decisions. Netanyahu approved the merger of Bezeq and Yes;, the Communications Ministry postponed telephony reform, which is worth about a billion shekels ($287 million) a year; the reform for opening Bezeq’s infrastructure to competition, which Bezeq is still fighting against; and Bezeq also benefitted from the Communication Ministry’s cancellation of structural separation.

“This is a very serious affair of giving and receiving bribes,” said Yehudit Tirosh, head of the securities department at the State Prosecutor’s Office. She was referring to the alleged systematically skewed coverage of the Netanyahu family on the Walla news website. “‘Favorable coverage’ is a gentle term,” Tirosh said 

During the hearing to extend the remand of several suspects in the affair, Tirosh said, “I have no way to correctly describe the gift.” She added: “It harnesses a leading website for the purpose of giving beneficial coverage in exchange for regulatory benefits from the Communications Ministry, communications minister [Netanyahu] and Communications Ministry director general [Shlomo Filber].”

Last Thursday the Kan news channel reported that testimony taken in the Bezeq-Walla affair showed Netanyahu continued to deal with Elovitch’s affairs even after Mendelblit forbade him from doing so. In June 2016, Mendelblit submitted an opinion to Netanyahu that he had to stop dealing with Elovitch’s affairs because of the friendship between them over the years. Mendelblit’s decision meant Netanyahu should have stopped handling a host of major companies in the Israeli communications market, among them Bezeq, Yes, Pelephone, Walla and communications equipment company Eurocom.

Tirosh added that there “is a real suspicion based on evidence of a disruption of the investigation by the two suspects, [Netanyahu confidant Nir] Hefetz and Elovitch.”