Explained

Two Bombshells in One Day: As Police Close in on Netanyahu, Here's What You Need to Know

These dramatic developments in police investigations surrounding the prime minister reshuffled the deck on Tuesday

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara attend an inauguration ceremony for a fortified emergency room at the Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon, February 20, 2018.
\ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

What happened on Tuesday?

Two dramatic developments reshuffled the deck on Tuesday. First, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s confidant, Shlomo Filber, reached a deal with police late Tuesday night to turn state’s evidence and incriminate him. Second, former judge Hila Gerstl testified that another Netanyahu confidant, Nir Hefetz, offered her the attorney general’s job if she would close a criminal case against Netanyahu’s wife Sara.

Are these two developments related?

No. We’re talking about two separate cases. The talks with Filber about a state’s evidence agreement relate to Case 4000, which revolves around suspicions that Netanyahu gave benefits worth hundreds of millions of shekels to Shaul Elovitch, owner of the Bezeq telecommunications giant and the Walla internet news site, in exchange for favorable coverage by Walla. The proposal to Gerstl is a brand new case, which police are calling Case 1270.

How dramatic is it that Filber turned state’s evidence?

It depends how much information he has. Did Netanyahu pressure him to help Elovitch? Did this pressure continue even after Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit forbade Netanyahu to deal with anything related to Elovitch? Did Netanyahu speak openly to Filber about the deal – goodies for Bezeq in exchange for favorable coverage by Walla?

If the prosecution is willing to sign a state’s evidence agreement with Filber, he is presumably offering incriminating information about Netanyahu. But a state’s evidence agreement with another Netanyahu confidant, Ari Harow, also once seemed as if it would pave the way to indicting the premier, and since then, doubts have risen about the value of his testimony.

What is Case 4000 all about?

The plot begins in May 2015, two months after Netanyahu was reelected prime minister, when he also became communications minister. The state comptroller asked him to divulge any conflicts of interest he had in this job and list any media tycoons whose affairs he shouldn’t deal with. But Netanyahu submitted an untrue affidavit, in which he failed to mention that Elovitch, the owner of Bezeq and Walla, had been a close friend for years.

The comptroller later found 12 cases in which Netanyahu worked to help Elovitch. The fact that Netanyahu made such systematic efforts to help Elovitch when he had such a severe conflict of interests leaves him open to charges of breach of trust.

But where does bribery come in? Did Netanyahu really go beyond the line for Elovitch?

To say the least. Two days after his government was sworn in, Netanyahu fired Communications Ministry Director General Avi Berger by telephone. In place of Berger, who fought the Bezeq behemoth on the public’s behalf, Netanyahu appointed Filber.

On his first day on the job, Filber met with Elovitch, and soon began helping him. He halted a reform of broadband communications, approved a merger between Bezeq and the satellite television company Yes and took various other steps that padded Elovitch’s pockets. The comptroller viewed Filber as a kind of secret agent for Bezeq, and the Israel Securities Authority has recommended indicting him.

And did Elovitch really go beyond the line for Netanyahu?

An investigative report by Gidi Weitz in Haaretz Magazine back in 2015 revealed that Elovitch ordered Walla to give Netanyahu favorable coverage. Articles were censored, headlines were altered and flattering reports about Sara Netanyahu were written and prominently displayed. Elovitch effectively turned Walla into a platform for doing Netanyahu serial favors.

Do the police actually have a case?

The police have two strong cards. One is correspondence between Netanyahu aides and Elovitch’s staff about tilting the coverage at Walla. The other is crucial testimony by Walla’s CEO, Ilan Yeshua. As Filber has turned state’s evidence, making a third card, there’s a non-negligible chance that police will have enough evidence to indict Netanyahu.

And what about the deal to appoint Gerstl attorney general in exchange for closing the case against Sara Netanyahu? Where did that come from?

Police received information about the matter, and on Monday, Gerstl gave them a statement confirming the information. She said that in late 2015, media consultant Eli Kamir passed on a proposal from Hefetz, Netanyahu’s confidant. The proposal was that if she would promise to close the case against Sara Netanyahu, which involved suspected improprieties at the prime minister’s residences, she would be appointed attorney general. Gerstl refused, and Mendelblit ultimately got the job.

But Gerstl didn’t give this explosive information to the police in real time?

Apparently not. She told a few confidants about it shortly afterward, including Supreme Court Justice Esther Hayut, who is now the Supreme Court president. But law enforcement officials told Haaretz on Tuesday that neither Gerstl nor Hayut ever came to the police with this information.

And how does the Supreme Court president explain the fact that she kept this information to herself?

Let’s start by noting that it’s not clear how much detail Gerstl gave Hayut about the proposal. Hayut, when asked about the issue on Tuesday, said merely that she would respond to the public “at the appropriate place and time.” But it’s already clear that she’ll have to give a statement to the police.

So where do we stand now, with this new bribery case against Netanyahu?

There is a new bribery case, but it’s premature to say that it’s against Netanyahu. So far, the finger has only been pointed at his adviser, Hefetz, and the middleman, Kamir. Did Hefetz come up with this idea himself? Was he acting as the prime minister’s emissary? Or perhaps he was sent by Sara Netanyahu? These are questions that haven’t yet been answered.

Hefetz himself denies the whole story, but the prosecution isn’t buying his denial. A prosecutor even made a rare appearance at Tuesday’s bail hearing and argued that this is “an incident of unparalleled severity, bribery at the highest levels.”