'Sara's Top Aide in New York': The Businessman Police Say Connected Elovitch to the Netanyahus

Shuki Sadeh
Shuki Sadeh
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Zeev Rubinstein.
Zeev Rubinstein.
Shuki Sadeh
Shuki Sadeh

May 2015, late at night, the 34th Israeli government was sworn in. Sara Netanyahu sat in the visitor’s gallery in the Knesset, near film producer Moshe Edery, a close confidant of the Netanyahu family. Nearby sat another man who has received almost no exposure in the Israeli media, an Israeli who left for the United States in 2001 named Zeev Rubinstein. His presence alongside the prime minister’s wife was not a coincidence, and was the result of the warm and close relations between Rubinstein and the Netanyahus. Rubinstein has a number of other close friends in Israel, including Shaul Elovitch, who was until quite recently the owner of the Bezeq telecommunications company, which also owns the Walla news site.

On Sunday, the Israel Police and Israel Securities Authority released their recommendations to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, as well as former media mogul Shaul Elovitch and his wife, Iris, for bribery and other corruption charges in the investigation dubbed Case 4000, also known as the Bezeq-Walla affair. But other people were included in the alleged crimes, including their mutual friend Rubinstein, the vice president for business development of the Israel Bonds organization in the United States, which underwrites debt securities issued by Israel.

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The police said in their announcement that “an adequate evidentiary foundation” had been found against Rubinstein to recommend an indictment on charges of serving as an intermediary in the prime minister's alleged bribery and accepting bribes. In other words, the police say he is one of the links connecting Elovitch to Netanyahu.

Sources involved in the investigation said Rubinstein did not create the initial connection between Netanyahu and Elovitch, but that at certain points he allegedly aided the two in reaching understandings. Evidence exists that links Rubinstein directly to the deal at the center of the corruption case: Positive coverage on the Walla news website in return for benefits for Bezeq from the Communications Ministry, the sources said.

Rubinstein’s connection to the Bezeq affair was revealed on Sunday for the first time and surprised many of his acquaintances in Israel. Uri Shani, formerly a close adviser to Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid, said that only three weeks ago he sat with Rubinstein and other Israeli friends and acquaintances in Israel in a Greek restaurant in Manhattan. They have been friends for years, back from when both were members of Likud, but “we are friends from afar,” said Shani. “In the meeting in the restaurant he seemed cheerful and happy and didn’t look tense. I didn’t know at all he was investigated in the affair,” said Shani.

A charming and charismatic man

Rubinstein, as his friends in Israel describe him, is a very charming and charismatic man, who knows how to make connections easily. He knows how to make friends with everyone, the wonderful type of wheeler-dealer form the movies, said someone who worked with him in the past. “What’s the Bonds? It’s connections,” added a political consultant who knows Rubinstein well. “He knows everyone, on the left and the right. He is an octopus of acquaintances. A man who knows how to create links in an extraordinary way and reach anyone he wants, including ministers,” the political consultant added.

In recent years, in political circles there were those who called him “Sara Netanyahu’s operations officer in New York.” This is because during the family’s visits to New York he took care of all their arrangements, and helped out the Netanyahu children, Yair and Avner, too, when they visited the city. “He is very close to Netanyahu, for years,” said someone who worked with Netanyahu in the past. “He would go with him to the most intimate places, such as the White House.”

Rubinstein’s connection with Netanyahu began in Likud circles back in the 1990s, when Rubinstein had a very close relationship with former Likud minister Limor Livnat and her political adviser at the time, Shaul Schneider. This is how he met Netanyahu, but it seems the close relationship between the two began only later, at the beginning of the millennium when the Netanyahus travelled to the United States often and Rubinstein was living there.

During his visits to Israel in recent years, Rubinstein also visited the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem. He was even one of the guests at the “Independence Day barbecue” – an event mentioned in Meni Naftali’s lawsuit against Netanyahu and the Prime Minister’s Office. The suit states that Naftali, the chief caretaker of the Prime Minister’s Residence, complained that he had to work on the Independence Day holiday and Sara Netanyahu told him in response that the prime minister had to work on that day too.

According to someone who attended the barbecue, the meat cost thousands of shekels. “Sara explained there that she wanted to honor Rubinstein like he honors her when she travels overseas,” the person who had attended the event said.

Rubinstein’s name was also mentioned in the “Bibi Tours” affair exposed by journalist Raviv Drucker, concerning Netanyahu’s overseas travel arrangements while serving as finance minister between 2003 and 2005. Rubinstein was mentioned specifically concerning an incident in June 2007, when Netanyahu was head of the opposition. In order to bypass the ban of the Knesset Ethics Committee on accepting outside funding for Sara Netanyahu’s trips abroad, Rubinstein supposedly asked his friend, public relations executive Bruria Angel, to arrange an event in which Sara would speak to a group of businesswomen on the psychological implications for children living under the shadow of terrorism. In the end, the event did not take place, and Sara Netanyahu’s flight was funded in a different way.  

It’s always good to have someone else around

The relationship between Rubinstein and Elovitch began in 1994, when he began to work at Eurocom, a company owned by Elovitch. Rubinstein was the marketing manager for one of the group’s companies, and worked directly under CEO Elovitch. After starting work, Rubinstein added a dimension of openness to the media and public relations to the company – while at the same time taking pride in his access to politicians, said someone who worked with him at the time. Rubinstein decided to leave after three years in the job, but stayed for another year to work in Eurocom’s headquarters alongside Elovitch. In 1998, Rubinstein joined Bezeq-Call, then a subsidiary of the still government-owned telecommunications giant, which was run by Schneider, who appointed Rubinstein the vice president of sales and marketing.

It is likely that the nature of this triangle of relations between Netanyahu, Elovitch and Rubinstein will become clearer as more information about the Bezeq-Walla case comes out. Someone who knows Rubinstein told Haaretz – before the new revelations against him – that Rubinstein “is in touch with Shaul Elovitch, and with his brother Yossi too, but will not want to admit it.”

“People of the status of Elovitch and Netanyahu know how to meet. But it is always good to have someone else around, a mediator, contact, to understand the spirit and trends,” he added.

In May 2015, before the Bezeq-Walla affair was exposed by Haaretz, Elovitch’s spokesman was asked about his acquaintance with Rubinstein. He was asked when the two had last met, how often they met and if Elovitch was aware of Rubinstein’s connection with Netanyahu. The spokesman said at the time: “About 20 years have passed since Rubinstein left one of the companies owned by Elovitch, in which he was a vice president. Since then the two have had no contact.”

Rubinstein said at the time in a telephone conversation, about Elovitch: “Friend? I worked for him between 1994 and 1998, I’m in hello-hello touch with him. The last time I met with him was a very long time ago.” This week, people close to Elovitch said this response related to business dealings between Rubinstein and Elovitch, but he did not mean that they did not have any contact over the years. Rubinstein was unavailable for comment.

Rubinstein moved to New Jersey in 2001, after working for communications company Solgood for two years. At first, he worked for Israel Discount Bank in New York. His job was to put the bank in touch with Jews and Israelis working in the United States. After that, he worked for a year as the CEO of Tadiran Telecom in the United States, and then he went to work for a number of Jewish organizations. First as the head of Birthright in the United States, after that at the American Council for World Jewry, and now the Israel Bonds.

Rubinstein often offered his services as a sort of go-between to Israeli companies and the American government in the early 2000s, claiming he had government connections, a source who knew him when he first came to the United States said. He is considered to be connected to Jack Rosen, a Jewish real estate tycoon, who is close to former President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party. Until 2013, he was the Executive Director of the American Council for World Jewry, headed by Rosen.

Rubinstein has connections in the Republican Party too. In 2012, he accompanied New Jersey governor Chris Christie on his visit to Israel.

In response to Sunday's police recommendation, Shaul Elovitch's lawyer, Jacques Chen said: "For an extended period, the police, through their leaks, have been preparing us for this recommendation. The recommendations are a rehash that present nothing new and I hope that those handling the case will look at it from a legal and professional perspective divorced from the huge pressure being exerted on them and that has accompanied this investigation from the beginning and has tainted it. Mr. Elovitch insists that he has not committed any offense."

Rubinstein’s lawyers, Pninat Yanai and Rami Tamam, said: "Mr. Zeev Rubinstein did not act as alleged as a go-between between the prime minister and Mr. Elovitch. He was not asked to be nor did he initiate any such connection. His relations with the Elovitchs was one of friendship with a few random meetings during his visits to Israel over the years since he moved to the United States, and nothing more. The relationship with Yossi Elovitch was cut over a decade ago."

“As a well-known figure in the Jewish world, Mr. Rubinstein was asked more than once to help in inviting the prime minister’s wife for lectures in front of women’s circles or various Jewish groups, and he always passed the request on to the Prime Minister’s Office as is appropriate, for their handling according to procedure,” his lawyers said.

The lawyers added: “Mr. Rubinstein does not have and has never had any connection to the suspicions under investigation, and the various reports trying to link him to the matter are regrettable. The fact that Mr. Rubinstein has known the prime minister and Mr. Elovitch personally for many years, certainly cannot testify to anything and/or link him to the matter under investigation in any way or manner.” The lawyers added that they had no doubt that the prosecution would carry out its work faithfully and find that Rubinstein was not involved in any crimes.

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