Police will have no choice but to call on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to provide testimony in the Bezeq corruption probe, also known as Case 4000, inside sources said Sunday evening, as investigators possess hard evidence of requests for flattering coverage of the Netanyahu family on the Walla! News website, which is owned by Bezeq.
Earlier Sunday, the Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court remanded suspects arrested in conjunction with the case: a media adviser close to the premier by five days, while two senior Bezeq officials and another confidant of Netanyahu were also remanded for the same period.
A gag order was put in place on all details pertaining to the investigation, and the court hearings were held behind closed doors.
While the suspects, including a media adviser suspected of bribery and obstruction of justice, were brought before Judge Ronit Poznanski-Katz, the prime minister posted another response to the investigation.
"This is another false investigation kicked off due to media pressures," the prime minister's message said. "The media witch hunt is in full swing. After the air went out of (cases) 1000 and 2000, and it turned out there was no air at all in (case) 3000, the media exerted enormous pressure to create a new balloon—4000. All the air will come out of that as well."
Case 1000 is the police's name for the illicit gifts affair, whereas cases 2000 and 3000 concern Netanyahu's talks with Yedioth Ahronoth owner and publisher Arnon Mozes and a deal to purchase submarines from the German ThyssenKrupp company respectively.
"The Justice Ministry made clear in the State Comptroller's report on Bezeq: 'The prime minister made no controversial decisions. No decision benefited Bezeq specifically and may be said to have been controversial, or affected by a conflict of interests.' This artificial bubble will also burst," the premier concluded.
State comptroller's report: Ties between PM and Elovitch
State Comptroller Yosef Shapira first examined ties between Netanyahu and Israeli telecommunications giant Bezeq—owned by Shaul Elovitch—in a report published July of last year.
Commenting on the prime minister's alleged conflict of interest, Shapira wrote that, "The Justice Ministry should have carried out inspections in full regarding the question of whether before putting together the conflict of interests arrangements, Netanyahu and Elovitch discussed issues under the purview of the Communications Ministry and the minister heading (Netanyahu)."
"Without the inspection being completed," Shapira wrote, "fears the aforementioned issues were broached were not lifted, and it remained impossible to inspect their ramifications on decisions in which the prime minister was involved in his capacity as communications minister before the arrangement was put into place."
The state comptroller also examined Netanyahu's possible conflict of interest as communications minister, and touched on his ties with Elovitch, a personal friend and majority owner and chairman of Bezeq.
In another chapter of the report, Shapira noted "fundamental flaws in the decision making process" at the Communications Ministry and by its director-general Shlomo Filber, a Netanyahu appointee, regarding certain breaks given to Bezeq vis-à-vis its merger with satellite television provider yes.
The prime minister responded to Shapira's report and said, "This is another futile attempt to create an affair against the prime minister out of thin air. The prime minister hid nothing. He was friendly with Elovitch but nothing beyond that, but when the matter was raised by the attorney general, he acted in accordance with his instructions."
"All decisions made by him regarding the communications sector, even before (the attorney general's instructions), were reached solely in accordance with recommendations by professional ranks, with only the public's best interest guiding him," the message said.
Elovitch suspected to have exerted pressure
The police's announcement Sunday morning said that due to evidence uncovered by the Israel Securities Authority recently, suspicions were raised that further offenses were committed, and a new joint investigation was thus inaugurated.
Several suspects were arrested, including senior Bezeq officials and two of Netanyahu's associates. The latter two arrived at Israel Securities Authority's offices in Tel Aviv to provide testimony.
They have previously held extremely senior positions at the Prime Minister's Office and one of them was already involved in a different criminal investigation.
Walla! News CEO Ilan Yeshua, editor-in-chief Aviram Elad and former editor-in-chief Yinon Magal all provided testimony to police Sunday morning. They spoke about claims that Elovitch and those close to him exerted pressure on them regarding coverage, including that pertaining to the prime minister and his family. The three are not suspects.
Journalist Dov Gil-Har, a former Walla! News employee, spoke at the beginning of his television show about the ties between Walla! News owner Elovitch and Netanyahu. "I was employed at Walla! News in the years being investigated by the police," he said. "I also witnessed the offensive patterns of a media body sucking up to Prime Minister Netanyahu. I—like many other good journalists at Walla! News—tried to do my best to make the management aware that the deeds being done there bordered on (illegal)."
The investigation's public phase began in June 2017, after it was conducted covertly for a time. During the course of the investigations, suspicions were examined for committing offenses relating to reporting, fraudulently obtaining benefits, fraud, breach of trust in a corporation and obstruction of justice.
The investigation related to suspicious conduct by senior officials at Bezeq, satellite TV company Yes and Spacecom, as well as several public officials who—in the course of the administration of their duties—worked with Bezeq.