Tel Aviv: Benjamin Netanyahu’s legal woes deepened after one of his closest confidants agreed to testify against him in a ballooning corruption scandal, complicating the Israeli leader’s efforts to hold on to his job.
Shlomo Filber, the suspended communications ministry director and onetime chief of Netanyahu’s bureau, signed an agreement to become state witness, Israeli media reported Wednesday. He turned on his former boss less than a week after police recommended pressing charges against Netanyahu in two other influence-peddling cases—and a day after news broke that police were investigating whether another longtime associate of the prime minister sought to bribe a judge.
Police have been questioning Filber for months, and the state’s witness agreement could represent a major break in the investigation. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert went to jail for bribery in 2016 after his longtime secretary turned against him.
While Netanyahu’s allies have rallied to his defence, and no indictments have been served, the expanding corruption scandal has called into question his ability to function as Israel’s leader at a time when security threats are growing on Israel’s northern and southern borders. Radio talk shows addressed whether Netanyahu should resign or step aside while the corruption allegations play out.
Netanyahu has denied wrongdoing, framing the corruption allegations as part of a wider effort by left-wing opponents and journalists to bring down his government.
The shekel, which had been strengthening recently, was down 0.1% at 10:40 am Wednesday in Tel Aviv. The TA-35 benchmark stock index was down 0.6%.
Filber already had been investigated on suspicion of crafting rules to benefit Bezeq Israeli Telecommunication Corp., controlled by a Netanyahu friend, Shaul Elovitch. In a new twist to the case, Filber and another Netanyahu aide were detained earlier this week as investigators probe whether the ministry helped Bezeq in exchange for positive coverage of Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, on the company’s Walla! news outlet.
Netanyahu, who stepped down as communications minister because of his friendship with Elovitch, insisted Tuesday he had done nothing to help the company.
“All decisions concerning Bezeq are made by professional committees, by professionals, under close legal supervision," he said in a Facebook post. “There are no private decisions here. All decisions are transparent and controlled."
Allegations of corruption have dogged Netanyahu for the past two decades, but he has never been charged with a crime. The defection of an aide as close as Filber turns up the heat.
“This looks very problematic and raises the chances of there being an indictment," said Abraham Diskin, professor emeritus of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Still, he cautioned, “there’s a long way to go to a conviction. In all these cases it can clearly be proved that Netanyahu’s interests were promoted, but in a criminal case you have to prove deed and intention beyond a reasonable doubt. It’s not enough to just put the circumstances on the table."
Another former Netanyahu confidant, Ari Harow, signed a similar agreement last year to cooperate with the police in other cases against Netanyahu. It’s unclear how significantly his testimony contributed to the police recommendations last week to indict Netanyahu in two other corruption cases.
Opposition politicians pounced on the news of Filber’s defection.
“The Netanyahu era is over," said Avi Gabbay, head of Israel’s Labour Party. “The process of healing and repairing Israeli society in the coming years will be long and complicated, but we will do it."
Netanyahu’s coalition partners have stuck by him, though some said their calculations could change if attorney general Avihai Mandelblit ultimately indicts the prime minister. Polls show his Likud party has remained strong. Naftali Bennett, the education minister and a key coalition partner, criticized Netanyahu for accepting expensive gifts but said at this point he wouldn’t bolt the government.
“Politically, for the time being, I don’t see any threats because no one has an interest in leaving yet," Diskin said. “But I do hear some voices paving the way to defect the coalition when the time comes."
While Netanyahu has not yet been identified as a suspect in the new Bezeq affair, police last week recommended he be charged in two other cases. In the first, police said they found evidence Netanyahu accepted gifts of champagne, cigars and jewellery worth about 1 million shekels ($286,000) from wealthy friends including Israeli-born Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan, who allegedly received financial benefits from the government in return.
In the second case, Netanyahu held discussions with the publisher of the Yediot Ahronoth newspaper to promote legislation to weaken another daily in exchange for favourable coverage.
It could take months for Mandelblit to review the police files and decide whether to press charges. Many such recommendations never ripen into criminal charges—including two police calls to indict Netanyahu earlier in his career.
Two other suspected corruption cases have edged close to the prime minister without yet entangling him as a suspect. Confidants—including his personal lawyer and the lead negotiator in some of Israel’s most delicate diplomacy in recent years—are suspected of wrongdoing in a €2 billion ($2.5 billion) deal to purchase submarines and patrol boats from Germany’s ThyssenKrupp AG.
On Tuesday, news broke that police were investigating another Netanyahu confidant on suspicion he offered to promote a now-retired judge’s candidacy for attorney general if she would close a criminal case against Netanyahu’s wife. Netanyahu dismissed the allegations as “delusional," and Israeli commentators said Tuesday the case did not appear to threaten him. Bloomberg