JERUSALEM >> Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel was questioned by police today as a possible suspect in a third bribery case, the weightiest so far in a string of corruption investigations that are jeopardizing his political future.
Officers questioned Netanyahu about a case involving Shaul Elovitch, an Israeli telecommunications tycoon accused of using his popular Hebrew news site to provide positive coverage of Netanyahu and his wife in return for regulatory and financial benefits worth tens of millions of dollars.
A large black screen was drawn this morning across leafy Balfour Street in Jerusalem, concealing the prime minister’s official residence and the comings and goings of investigators. Outside, a small but noisy group of demonstrators beat drums and held placards with slogans against corruption.
Netanyahu, who has now been questioned by police eight times in the past 14 months, is fighting for his political life as the allegations against him mount. Last month, police recommended Netanyahu be charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in two other graft cases involving allegations of illicit gifts for favors and another attempt to obtain more favorable coverage.
Those cases are now being examined by state prosecutors and the attorney general, who will ultimately decide whether to file charges pending a hearing with Netanyahu’s lawyers. The process could take months.
Inside the Balfour Street residence, Netanyahu was questioned for hours under caution as a possible suspect, according to police. His wife, Sara, was questioned simultaneously as a suspect in the same case at the fraud investigation unit’s headquarters in Lod, central Israel.
The latest twist in a spiraling corruption scandal comes on the eve of Netanyahu’s departure for Washington, where he is scheduled to meet President Donald Trump and address the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference.
Netanyahu has made a point of maintaining a high-profile presence on the world stage, traveling in recent weeks to India, where he was treated like royalty; to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland; and to an international security conference in Munich.
Denying all wrongdoing, Netanyahu has been trying to project a business-as-usual approach despite his mounting legal troubles, aiming to burnish his credentials both at home and abroad as an international player.
In a short video posted on Facebook after he was questioned, Netanyahu said he was about to embark on “a very important visit” to the United States and added, in reference to the police investigations, “I feel confident that nothing will come of it.”
The questioning of the prime minister, who also served as communications minister from 2014-2017, in this latest case was expected.
Several members of his close circle have been arrested in the case, including Nir Hefetz, a former media adviser to the Netanyahus, and Shlomo Filber, a political operative for Netanyahu’s conservative Likud Party and Netanyahu’s pick as director general of the Communications Ministry. Filber, a long-serving Netanyahu aide, has turned state witness.
The case involves a dicey mix of political power, big business and personal relationships. Netanyahu is a friend of Elovitch, who owns the Eurocom Group holding company, which owns Bezeq, the Israeli telecommunications giant that has long had a near-monopoly on landlines in the country.
Bezek owns Walla, the Israeli news site that has provided lopsidedly flattering coverage of the Netanyahus for months or years. Sara Netanyahu, a friend of Elovitch’s wife, Iris, is reported to have sent messages to her with demands to tilt the coverage in her husband’s favor. Iris Elovitch has already been arrested in the affair and spent several days in detention.
Sara Netanyahu is facing possible fraud charges in a separate case in which she is accused of misusing about $100,000 in public funds in her management of the prime minister’s official residence.
Among other things, the Communications Ministry is said to have pushed regulators to allow the merger of a money-losing satellite network, Yes, also owned by Shaul Elovitch, with Bezeq, a deal that would have reaped huge tax savings for Elovitch.
At a hearing for two of the suspects in the case in a Tel Aviv court this week, Yehudit Tirosh, a prosecution lawyer, pointed a finger at Benjamin Netanyahu in his role as communications minister.
“This is a grave case of giving and receiving bribes,” Tirosh was quoted as saying by the Israeli news media. “The term ‘positive coverage’ is misleading. This is harnessing a leading website in return for regulatory favors by the minister of communications and the director general of the Ministry of Communications.” The value of the regulatory benefits was about $500 million, she said.
The prime minister responded in a Facebook post this week, saying, “All actions were carried out in a professional manner based on the recommendations of the professional echelon, professional committees and legal counsel.”
Jack Chen, a lawyer representing Shaul Elovitch, said in an interview today that the allegations were “baseless” and that his client categorically denied that there was ever any such deal.