The "Bezeq-Walla! Affair," or Case 4000 as it’s been dubbed by Israeli media, is one of three corruption cases facing Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It’s also the most serious in that everyone, including the prime minister, believes that it will lead to an indictment in the coming weeks—an X factor that could prove fatal to Likud Party hopes in the April 9 elections.
The Israeli police, who recommend indictment, say that Netanyahu helped Israeli tycoon Shaul Elovitch by pushing through the merger of two companies he owned, telecommunications firm Bezeq and satellite TV company Yes. (Elovitch made $269 million on the deal.)
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In exchange, Netanyahu and his family would receive favorable news coverage from Walla!, a news site Bezeq owned.
But the closer one looks, the less things add up. According to all those involved, the merger of Bezeq-Yes was done by the book. The head of Israel’s Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Council, Dr. Yifat Ben Hai Segev, who served in the position from 2014-2018, said "There wasn’t any pressure from the side of Netanyahu’s people to approve the merger."
Orly Yehezkel, a current member of the council, told Israel’s Channel 20, "The discussions were professional discussions. The people were professional people. … We received all the material. We sat there hours. Paragraph after paragraph. Paragraph after paragraph. No one influenced us. No one turned to us. No one requested anything from us."
The 17-member council voted unanimously to approve the merger.
Israel’s Antitrust Authority also signed off on the deal in March 2014. Indeed, at that point, the merger had been under discussion for six years already. Judges at the Antitrust Authority debated the matter in depth twice in 2009, after a preliminary approval by that body in 2008. This was prior to Netanyahu even reassuming the position of prime minister.
It’s not clear if the Antitrust Authority judges who debated the matter were interviewed by the police, but it’s unlikely given that investigators didn’t bother gathering evidence from any of the cable and satellite council members, or the head of the Antitrust Authority who signed off on the deal. Indeed, no one knows how many, if any, of the 150 senior officials involved in approving the merger were asked to give testimony.
As far as the sympathetic coverage Netanyahu allegedly received in return, a survey found that during the campaign period leading up to the 2015 elections, 75 percent of the columns in Walla! were hostile to Netanyahu. One would think that this would have been precisely the time that Elovitch, owner of Walla!, would have made good on his end of the bargain.
Those who defend Netanyahu say that the favorable coverage, which he didn’t in any case receive, shouldn’t be considered a form of bribery at all.
Alan Dershowitz, who has weighed in on these supposed corruption cases says, "It is very dangerous to start indicting people based on negotiations with newspapers. That’s what politicians do." He added, "To start interfering in the relationship between media and the government poses a tremendous danger to free speech and a tremendous danger to democracy."
It doesn’t look like Israel’s attorney general will go forward with the police recommendation to indict on the other even more dubious cases, dubbed 1000 and 2000.
In Case 1000, Netanyahu is accused of taking bribes in the form of champagne and cigars from two tycoons, Israeli Arnon Milchen and Australian James Packer, in return for political favors. Only it’s not clear what they received. In the case of Milchen, Netanyahu worked against the businessman’s interests in at least two instances.
In Case 2000, Netanyahu is said to have accepted better coverage in Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot and on its website Ynet in exchange for hobbling competing newspaper Israel Hayom. But Netanyahu not only opposed the law that would have negatively impacted Israel Hayom, he disbanded the government in order to keep it from passing.
Unfortunately for the Likud, Israelis don’t know much about these cases. Like the American public when it comes to Trump-Russia collusion, their eyes glaze over when the details are discussed. The Likud fears this will work to their opponents’ advantage. The public will only hear the buzzwords: "indictment," "bribery," and "breach of trust." Opposition parties will pile on—they’ve been calling for Netanyahu’s resignation since Case 1000 was introduced in December 2016—and Likud voters will slip away.
Netanyahu’s efforts thus far may have been counterproductive. On January 7, Netanyahu took to the airwaves for what was billed as a "dramatic statement" that was covered by all major Israeli news stations. Many assumed it had something to do with the defense situation. When Netanyahu used the time to defend himself against the pending cases, he was widely criticized and at least one station pulled its coverage mid-speech.
The Likud estimates an indictment will cost it four to five seats, which could bring to power a left-leaning coalition. This makes it all the more important from Likud’s perspective that the right-wing splinter parties unite. According to internal Likud polling released last Thursday, three of the right-wing parties will not garner enough votes to make it into the Knesset. But if they unite, they’ll win eight seats, enough to guarantee a right-wing victory.
The time to do so is running out. Parties have until midnight Thursday to submit their final lists to Israel’s Central Elections Committee.