Israeli MP Benjamin Netanyahu, already under investigation for two instances of corruption, may complete a hat-trick. A state prosecutor has named Netanyahu as the beneficiary of a PR scheme worth “up to a billion shekels.”
Earlier this month, police recommended Netanyahu be indicted for allegations of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. These are being addressed in two separate investigations, known as Case 1000 and Case 2000.
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However, the Israeli leader now risks being dragged into another scandal-ridden investigation – Case 4000 – that revolves around his former media adviser striking a deal with communications giant Bezeq for positive coverage in return for business favors. Alongside his ongoing tenure as Prime Minister, Netanyahu also served as the country’s communications minister from 2014 to 2017. As such he directly benefited from the alleged deal, state prosecutor Yehudit Tirosh said in a hearing on Tuesday.
“I have no way of properly describing the benefit [he received]. We are talking about enlisting a leading news site to provide adulating coverage in return for regulatory benefits given by the Communications Ministry, the minister of communications and the director-general of the Communications Ministry,” Tirosh said.
Both the majority shareholder of Bezeq, Shaul Elovitch, and a disgraced former media adviser to Netanyahu, Nir Hefetz, are being held in custody. As Elovitch and Hefetz appealed their detention on Tuesday, state prosecution argued that if they are released they might conspire to derail the investigation.
Insisting that the two must be kept behind bars, the state prosecutor, as cited by the Times of Israel, said that “there is a real suspicion that if the suspects are released today, hugely important investigative work that needs to be carried out in the coming days will be thwarted.”
She was possibly referring to the upcoming questioning of Netanyahu, who is set to testify before the court on Friday. There have been concerns the alleged co-conspirators might seek to coordinate their actions with Netanyahu if their request is granted.
An alleged agreement between Bezeq and Netanyahu’s media adviser at the time focused on Israeli website Walla’s coverage of Netanyahu and his family. The website, which is owned by Bezeq, appeared to change its take on Netanyahu, portraying him in a more positive light during the time he was communications minister. For his services, Elovitch reportedly was given over 1 billion shekels ($286 million) in bribes and business favors, including helping him to circumvent antitrust regulations. Several other suspects, among them the telecom mogul’s family members and staff, have been placed under house arrest.
Over the weekend, the investigation itself became a source of controversy after messages leaked to the Israeli media between the presiding judge and one of the investigators, hinting at possible coordination. Although the texts, released on Sunday, referred mostly to logistics issues and not the essence of the case, the judge and the investigator were both removed from the investigation. The court on Tuesday refused to consider it as a legitimate reason for releasing Elovitch and Hefetz, with the state prosecutor arguing that the incident had not damaged the judicial process and that the detention of the suspects was in line with the proceedings.
Netanyahu spoke defiantly in the face of the accusations against him that seem to have piled up in recent months. On Monday, the PM issued a statement defending his decision as communications minister to let Bezeq buy a satellite cable provider, which some viewed as a breach of anti-trust laws. Arguing that all the decisions concerning the telecommunications giant were made by him in a “professional manner” and involved no conflict of interest, Netanyahu slammed the investigation as a “scandal” and a “witch hunt that has been going on for years.”
“Every day the numbers are rising. At first they were talking about tens of millions, then hundreds of millions. Today is one billion, and tomorrow one trillion. But the truth will win, and the hot air will blow out of this balloon – because there was nothing,” he said.
Netanyahu also denies any wrongdoing in cases 1000 and 2000. The first alleges that the Israeli leader and his wife received luxury gifts from two billionaire acquaintances in exchange for favors. The second revolves around suspicions Netanyahu had struck a quid pro quo deal with a top-selling newspaper.
Israelis, who have been rallying against “Crime Minister” Netanyahu on the streets every Saturday since December 2016, appear to believe the police over the PM, according to a recent poll by Reshet TV which found than only a quarter side with Netanyahu and almost half with the police.
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