In a sign that Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s political undoing may be accelerating, it emerged on Wednesday that one of his closest confidants has agreed to testify against him in a graft probe.
Two new corruption investigations against the embattled Prime Minister were announced this week, hot on the heels of a police recommendation that he face charges in two other cases. Speculation is now growing that he could be forced to step down or call an early election. And with many former Netanyahu aides and advisers having been subjected to police questioning, his political bedfellows seem increasingly reticent about defending him.
According to media reports confirmed by police, Shlomo Filber, a Netanyahu ally for more than 20 years and former director general of the country’s communications ministry, is expected to turn state witness in exchange for avoiding jail. A gag order prevented publication of the details of the deal.
Filber was arrested on Sunday in connection with allegations that Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in Israeli telecommunications giant Bezeq, gave Netanyahu positive coverage on his Walla! news site in exchange for policies benefiting the business. Filber is suspected of mediating between Netanyahu and Elovitch and promoting regulatory changes worth millions to Bezeq.
Two senior Bezeq employees also detained on Sunday appeared in court on Wednesday. The prime minister himself has not been named as a suspect in the investigation.
In another fresh case announced this week, two Netanyahu allies are alleged to have offered a judge promotion in exchange for dropping a case against the premier’s wife. The two men have been identified as Nir Hefetz and Eli Kamir, both former Netanyahu family media advisers. Their alleged offer was to Hila Gerstel, a judge involved in a graft probe into Sara Netanyahu over alleged misuse of public funds.
Last week police said there were grounds to indict the prime minister himself, in two separate cases, for bribery, fraud and breach of public trust.
Netanyahu, 68, has rejected all the allegations. He released a new video on his Facebook account late on Tuesday strongly denying any wrongdoing and accusing the media and police of a witch-hunt. Quoting a biblical phrase referring to the ancient Egyptians’ treatment of the Jews, he said: “The more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread.”
Netanyahu’s coalition partners last week said they would stand by him – but they have remained largely silent since Sunday. His right-wing Likud party, the largest in parliament, still remains supportive. On Wednesday, however, one of the party’s Knesset representatives, Oren Hazan, became the first to call for the PM to recuse himself.
Hazan told Israel Radio that Netanyahu should “make a deal with the attorney-general to spare more embarrassment for him and the Likud, and temporarily pick an interim prime minister while he fights the charges against him.”
‘End of an era’
“If Shlomo (Momo) Filber indeed signed a state’s witness agreement last night, it is the end of an era,” Ben Caspit wrote in the Maariv newspaper on Wednesday, calling him Netanyahu’s “closest and most intimate covert operations officer.”
“Always in the shadows, always loyal, efficient, secretive and ideological, Bibi (Netanyahu) knew that he could count on Momo. Until yesterday,” said Caspit, the author of a recent book on the prime minister.
Filber is seen as one of the architects of Netanyahu’s surprise 2015 election victory, after which he was appointed to head the communications ministry.
“He should make a deal with the attorney-general to spare more embarrassment for him and the Likud”
Israel’s next general election is not due until the end of 2019 but media speculation is rife that Netanyahu might go to the polls before the end of this year.
Under the headline “The smell of elections,” the pro-Netanyahu newspaper Israel Hayom published a poll suggesting Likud might jump from 30 to 34 seats in Israel’s 120-seat parliament despite the allegations hanging over him.
In less welcome news for the premier, another poll found that half the population wants Netanyahu to either quit or suspend himself, with only 33% saying he should keep his job. It found that 42% of respondents want elections and 36% do not.
The Israel Hayom said the Prime Minister’s Office intended to push for an early election, rather than be forced into one by its coalition partners. However, The Jerusalem Post reports that senior Likud figures have dismissed such talk as “political tactics.” One figure close to Netanyahu told the Post he would not initiate an election without first ensuring support from potential coalition partners.
With reporting from Agence France-Presse.