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Telecom mogul admits pushing favorable news coverage of Netanayhu family: report

Israeli tycoon Shaul Elovitch appears in the Justice Court in Tel Aviv on February 22, 2018
JACK GUEZ (AFP/File)

Israeli telecoms mogul Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of telecommunications giant Bezeq and the owner of the popular news site Walla, reportedly admitted to police interrogators on Tuesday that he personally intervened to promote favorable coverage of the Netanyahu family at their request, but denied expecting anything in return.

The reported admission came as both Elovitch and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were questioned by police in a corruption probe dubbed "Case 4,000", which centers on allegations of a quid-pro-quo deal between the two offering regulatory concessions benefiting Bezeq in exchange for positive media coverage of Netanyahu and his wife Sara by Walla.

A report by Channel 10 news following Elovitch's over four hour long interrogation on Tuesday said that the telecom mogul had admitted to calling Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua to have the content of news articles altered.

“I couldn’t ignore the pleas of Sara Netanyahu and the rest of the Netanyahu family. I didn’t want to anger the prime minister. He was my regulator," Elovitch reportedly told investigators. “What did you expect? That I would ignore those requests?”

Elovitch insisted, however, that he "never expected any favors in return."

"I didn’t talk to Netanyahu about regulatory benefits and there was no bribery deal," Elovitch claimed, according to the report.

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / AFP

Elovitch's lawyer issued a statement in response to the report, slamming it as a "distorted leak".

“Again and again we find out that the rights of interrogees are trampled. This, again, is an unlawful, distorted leak to which we cannot respond directly since the issue is under police investigation. Of course Mr. Elovitch denies the suspicions against him and didn’t think of bribing the prime minister,” attorney Jack Chen said in a statement.

Other reports concerning Netanyahu's interrogation said that the premier had provided investigators with documents purporting to show "enormous" losses suffered by Bezeq during his tenure as communications minister, when the alleged quid-pro-quo deal is suspected to have been struck.

Netanyahu also challenged claims that Walla's coverage of him or his family at the time had been overly favorable, claiming that 75 percent of news items on the site about his wife were critical. He also reportedly showed police text messages between Sara and Elovich's wife in which slammed the news site as "left-wing".

“If there was a bribery deal, why didn’t Sara write what she was giving them?” the prime minister said, according to the Yedioth Ahronoth daily.

A statement issued on behalf of the Netanyahu family following the interrogation called allegations of a quid-pro-quo deal "baseless."

AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, Pool, File

“Prime Minister Netanyahu never made a deal with Elovitch in exchange for sympathetic coverage,” the statement said, adding that “Walla has consistently provided negative coverage” of the prime minister.

“This negative coverage culminated in a flood of virulent articles on the eve of the 2015 elections, in an attempt to persuade the public to vote against him. This is exactly the period of time when he is accused of having allegedly made the [deal],” the statement said.

Tuesday's interrogation of Netanyahu was his fourth in "Case 4,000" and tenth overall in a slew of corruption probes into the affairs of the prime minister and/or members of his inner circle.

During his questioning, Netanyahu was said to be presented with evidence given to police by state’s witness and former senior aide to the prime minister, Nir Hefetz, reportedly showing that both Netanyahu and Elovitch were clearly aware that a quid pro quo deal was taking place, and that Hefetz spoke with Elovitch six to seven times a day when he serving as an adviser to the prime minister.

Netanyahu said that "nothing new" had been presented to him during questioning and continued to deny any wrongdoing.

Hefetz has also provided the police with new evidence in two other corruption cases against Netanyahu, including another involving an alleged quid-pro-quo agreement with one of the country’s leading newspapers in exchange for favorable coverage of the premier and his family.

JACK GUEZ (AFP/File)

In “Case 1,000” -- in which police allege Netanyahu accepted around 1 million shekels ($280,000) worth of luxury gifts from a number of wealthy benefactors in exchange for favorable government treatment -- Hefetz reportedly provided investigators with names of additional patrons seemingly strengthening suspicions that the exchanges were methodical.

In “Case 2,000” -- which centers on an alleged arrangement with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes to limit circulation of the newspaper's main rival in exchange for more favorable coverage -- Hefetz reportedly provided investigators with the names of additional figures involved in mediating the alleged arrangement.

Police in February recommended that Netanyahu be indicted for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in both “Case 1,000” and “Case 2,000”.

The mounting cases have fueled speculation Netanyahu could be forced to step down or call an early election, but he has maintained his innocence and has denounced all allegations against him as a media and police witch hunt.

See also:

Netanyahu's tangled web of corruption cases explained

Sara Netanyahu's fraud trial postponed three months: court

Explosive texts show collusion between judge, investigators in Bezeq affair

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