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Netanyahu trial turns to alleged benefits he provided Bezeq telecom company

The criminal trial of Benjamin Netanyahu pivoted Tuesday from the favors the former prime minister is alleged to have received to the benefits prosecutors say he gave the Bezeq telecommunications company in return, misusing his official position.

Taking the stand after six months of testimony from executives and editors at the Walla news site, former Communications Ministry director-general Avi Berger became the first witness in the so-called Case 4000 to allege in court that Netanyahu had abused his position as prime minister.

In the case, one of three against the former premier, Netanyahu is charged with illicitly and lucratively benefiting the business interests of Bezeq’s controlling shareholder, Shaul Elovitch, in exchange for positive coverage on the Elovitch-owned Walla news website. He is accused of abusing his powers when he served as both prime minister and communications minister from 2014 to 2017.

Netanyahu faces charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust, while Elovitch and his wife have been charged with bribery.

All three defendants deny wrongdoing.

The allegations of misconduct go back to when Netanyahu replaced Gilad Erdan as communications minister in November 2014, in what critics saw as a power grab to give him increased control over the media and telecom industries.

He subsequently fired Berger over the phone, in May 2015, and appointed long-time ally and former campaign manager Shlomo Filber in his stead.

The indictment claims the move, as well as Netanyahu’s insistence that the 2015 coalition agreements include a provision giving him “sole control” over media matters, was aimed at creating a less confrontational stance vis-à-vis Bezeq, a company Berger had sought to limit.

Berger was advancing a radical reform of the Israeli telecommunications industry that would have opened up the internet market, overwhelmingly controlled by Bezeq, to competition, and that aimed to ensure the efficient and speedy rollout of cutting-edge internet infrastructure.

Specifically, Berger had opposed Bezeq’s purchase of the Yes satellite broadcaster from Elovitch’s Eurocom Group, which the businessman stood to earn substantially from.

Speaking from the witness stand Tuesday, Berger explained how Elovitch had personally tried to pressure him to approve the deal, including by using “implicit threats,” and how Netanyahu himself had pushed for the deal to be given the green light.

“Bezeq was against the reform and claimed that it violated the right to conduct business, and was illegal,” Berger said, answering questions from prosecutor Yehuda Tirosh.

“Bezeq sent a lot of letters, dozens a year, requests for meetings, [there was] pressure on me, the minister, a general atmosphere of opposition.”

Berger said that in a 2014 meeting with Elovitch, the Bezeq owner threatened him over the deal.

“He told me that there was once a director-general of the Communications Ministry who submitted an opinion against him and subsequently lost his job and had difficulty finding work. He said he hoped we would part as friends,” Berger said.

“I realized it was an implicit threat and told the ministry’s legal counsel immediately.”

In a stark accusation against Netanyahu, Berger said the former prime minister adopted Bezeq’s position over that of the Communications Ministry and, when he became minister, pressured Berger to change the position the ministry had submitted against the deal.

He said that Netanyahu’s pick for the ministry’s chief of staff, Eitan Tzafrir, gave him orders to “help Bezeq out” and push through the deal with Yes.

“In my final months in office, [Tzafrir] became the person who connected me with the prime minister. The first meeting was with him and Netanyahu at Netanyahu’s office. I was told by Netanyahu that Tzafrir’s directive was the prime minister’s directive,” he said.

“Tzafrir told me several times that they do not want me and that I should resign. He’d say that I don’t do what I’m told. He told me that he was the de facto communications minister,” Berger continued. “He gave me instructions on several issues, told me to help Bezeq out and speed up the Bezeq-Yes deal. He did not always say the source of the instructions but said they were from the Prime Minister’s Office and the prime minister.”

Berger also said that he was given direct instructions regarding the deal from the Prime Minister’s Office.

“Confirm the deal, and fast,” Berger said he was told by then-director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, Erel Locker.

“I told him it was in [the Communication Ministry’s] care and not that of the Prime Minister’s Office,” he added.

In addition to pushing to approve the merger with Yes, prosecutors allege that Netanyahu gave Bezeq significant preferential treatment in other regulatory decisions.

For example, in 2014, Israel launched a wholesale market reform to open up the fixed-line telephony and internet market, dominated by Bezeq, to competition. According to the planned reform, as described by the indictment, by March 2017 Bezeq was supposed to lease out its infrastructure to telecom competitors such as Partner Communications Co. and Cellcom so they could provide competing fixed-line and internet services. With Filber overseeing the implementation, Bezeq reneged on its obligation.

Allegedly at the behest of Netanyahu, Filber started hindering the rollout of the reform. Bezeq was no longer threatened with fines for not adhering to the timetable for the reform. And, the charge sheet continues, neither did Filber approve the administrative orders necessary to advance the process — such as setting out the procedures by which the various telecom operators should interact with each other in sharing infrastructure.

As a result, the deployment of high-speed fiber-optic cables that would have given millions of Israelis infrastructure for cheaper and faster internet, and ensured Israel’s capacity to maintain a global competitive edge, was significantly slowed.

Prosecutors are expected to also question Berger on his role in pushing the reform, and Netanyahu’s supposed opposition to it in the months that they worked together. His questioning will continue on Wednesday and is expected to last through next week.

Berger is the fourth witness to testify in the trial, following former Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua, former editor-in-chief Aviram Elad, and news department head Michal Klein.

Source: Raoul Wootliff – TOI