What happened in the Communications Ministry during the years it served as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s private estate can be referred to as “Case 4,000.” While the comptroller avoided explicitly recommending a criminal investigation into the matter, his scathing account doesn’t leave the attorney general much room to maneuver. Each of the affairs alone, and all of them together, give off a strong smell of corruption. “Power tends to corrupt,” Lord Acton said; so does time. A lot of power over an extended period of time corrupts sevenfold.
The submarine affair and the Bezeq affair share several characteristics and several heroes. The most obvious characteristic is greed.
When the position of communications minister became available in late 2014, Netanyahu insisted on appointing himself. This insistence raised doubts among anyone with knowledge in the field of communications. The Communications Ministry was meant to serve as a technical and business regulator, not as a political ministry or a press office, which is why the committees appointed to discussed the issue have repeatedly recommended cancelling the ministry and replacing it with an authority. Handing such a ministry to a prime minister is like letting the fox live in the henhouse.
Another perplexing matter was the involvement of two of Netanyahu’s relatives, David Shimron and Isaac Molho, who run a law firm together. Shimron is Netanyahu’s private attorney and his representative in any political negotiation; Molho is his emissary on diplomatic missions. On its website, the law firm boasts, quite insolently, that it is “one of Israel’s leading firms in the field of telecommunications.”
When lawyers run the kingdom’s business and their private business simultaneously, the sin is waiting at the door, ready to strike. When it’s about decisions worth billions and a prime minister’s direct involvement, the sin is outrageous.
I exposed the two lawyers’ double status in many of my Yedioth Ahronoth columns. Netanyahu, as always, lashed out at the newspaper. Former Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein was struck by fear. It took Weinstein five months to reach a conflict of interest prevention agreement with the lawyers. “It’s a twisted agreement,” I wrote. As the comptroller’s investigation reveals, this agreement wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on.
The gatekeepers’ weakness is a double-edged sword. Weinstein’s weakness eventually hurt those he sought to please—in this case, Netanyahu and his lawyer Shimron. They thought that everything is permitted, that everything is legitimate. Weinstein was their hubris.
One of the problems in turning private lawyers into a prime minister’s representatives and associates is the reputation they gain in the market. Attorney Shimron walked around government ministries like a king in his castle. He made a name for himself through the prime minister’s aura. Businesspeople were impressed and waited at his door. This association and this aura are worth a lot of money, much more than the symbolic shekel the state pays attorney Molho for his services.
The Communications Ministry’s Shimron is the same Shimron involved in the submarine affair. While in the Bezeq affair the investigations have to do with the business decisions made by the company’s owners and with the Communication Ministry’s odd regulatory activity, in the submarine affair the investigations focus on the involvement of Maj. Gen. (res.) Eliezer Marom, agent Miki Ganor and attorney Shimron in promoting dubious security-related moves. The suspicions are serious; the explanations are lame.
Public paying the price
There is another person who plays a significant role in the Bezeq affair. Shlomo Filber was appointed director-general of the Communications Ministry by Netanyahu. I know him from his work in the Yesha Council. He was an efficient executionist, without the aggressive fanaticism some of his colleagues are known for. When I learned about the strange decisions he signed on, in the Likud campaign and in the Communications Ministry, I asked to meet with him and hear his version. He refused graciously.
The feeling in the media industry was that Filber was working for Shaul Elovitch, Bezeq’s controlling shareholder. A series of decisions, primarily the urgent letter Filber sent Bezeq behind the backs of senior ministry employees, a letter which aimed to help the company pocket hundreds of millions of shekels, shocked the market. His motive remains unclear, even after the comptroller’s report. The explanation he offered at the time maintained, in short, that the state was letting Elovitch get richer, as it assumed the money he earned would be invested in upgrading the communication infrastructures. As the comptroller clarifies, that didn’t happen. The price was paid by the public.
Netanyahu planned to use his term in the Communications Ministry to create two changes: First, to increase the number of television channels in Israel so that none of the channels would be able to cover news and gain influence; second, to make it clear to businesspeople that if the media outlets they control behave themselves, it will be worth their while. Berlusconi combined with Elovitch. Has the plan died? I’m not sure.
There is another mystery around the submarine affair: Why was this huge purchase deal handled by the Prime Minister’s Office instead of by the Defense Ministry? Why did Netanyahu insist, in a completely unprecedented manner, to hand the issue over to an office which is unfit to deal with it, without any control and without any discussion? Why was then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon okay with this? Today, Ya’alon is accusing Netanyahu of corruption—not just in Israel, but also in the foreign media—but what did he do at the time, when he could have stopped the flow?
And of course, who meddled where, who issued the order to cancel the tender and why, and how is possible it that Shimron—the confidant—forgot to tell the prime minister that he was involved in a deal Netanyahu was promoting. In any event, Netanyahu and the group surrounding him appear to be approaching the oh-so-familiar moment from the past, when Israelis tell their leaders: We’re sick of your corruption.