The public corruption trial of Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu continued on Monday with the testimony of former Communications Ministry official Yair Hakak, who explained aspects of the prosecution’s regulatory side of the Bezeq-Walla media bribery affair.
Hakak told the Jerusalem District Court and the police that there were points where he felt his boss at the time, Shlomo Filber, who later turned state’s witness, was a “plant” or a “stooge” exploring policies with ulterior motives (ultimately for Netanyahu) and going against the public interest.
The former Communications Ministry official, who focused on the planning and policy division, said he even took a year off from the ministry in the middle of Filber’s term, partially to escape from policies and conduct he found problematic.
Hakak said he felt “we were prevented from making professional decisions. We could not advance the public interest.”
At another point, Hakak testified that he told Filber, “If you want to fire me, fire me,” in protest over Filber’s approach to handling Bezeq.
In addition, he gave a detailed explanation regarding issues related to Filber’s controversial attempts to break down the legal structural separation between the Bezeq and YES corporations.
This past May, Filber tried to defend his move to exempt Bezeq from a key government hearing over the issue, thereby overruling the ministry’s legal adviser, Dana Neufeld.
In 2015, under pressure from Filber, the ministry had approved the Bezeq-YES merger, which was desired by Bezeq and Walla owner Shaul Elovitch and Netanyahu as part of their alleged positive Walla media coverage for positive government policy regarding Bezeq.
However, even with approval, a key condition had been to keep Bezeq and YES separate in a number of legal and tax areas.
Elovitch wanted to eliminate these remaining separations, especially to utilize hundreds of millions of shekels in losses from YES to reduce or even eliminate Bezeq’s large tax bill.
Neufeld had consistently demanded a hearing over the issue.
In December 2016, Filber sent a letter to Bezeq that removed the requirement for a hearing, which Bezeq then publicized to its shareholders as showing its future success and as eliminating the structural and legal separations between Bezeq and YES.
However, the legal establishment after the fact of Filber’s letter to Bezeq ultimately insisted on holding the hearing.
In May of this year, Filber insisted that when he went behind the back of Neufeld and the legal establishment by trying to exempt Bezeq from the hearing, he was acting not to further a Netanyahu bribery scheme but because it was good policy.
When questioned about this move by one of the judges, he said he was sure that if there was a hearing, other competitors might try to intervene, and his many critics within his ministry would gain momentum to derail the process.
Instead, he thought that eliminating the separations between Bezeq and YES were good policy to incentivize Bezeq to voluntarily comply with a number of market reforms that would eventually allow other competitors into news aspects of the telecommunications arena.
In contrast, Hakak said eliminating such crucial and sensitive legal separations, if done at all, had to be done slowly, with the thickest oversight possible, a balancing of risks and opportunities and with meticulous attention to the relevant details and impact in the real world.
Moreover, he said another ministry official, Haran Levaot, due to testify imminently, had called him to ask if a document Filber was issuing on behalf of the ministry was similar to what Hakak had earlier proposed.
According to Hakak, Filber had ignored his document and manufactured a document with policy proposals disconnected from the ministry’s goals of promoting competition and the public interest.
On cross-examination, Elovitch’s lawyer Jacques Chen lit into Hakak with unusual intensity.
He sought to portray Hakak as a loose cannon who was taking instructions from former ministry director-general Avi Berger to arrange meetings between Bezeq’s competitors and EU officials.
However, Hakak responded that he had met routinely with EU telecom regulatory experts – in this case as part of a series of meetings related to a new joint project – and that there was nothing unusual about his meeting.
Further, he said he had no financial connection to Bezeq’s competitors and did not feel the need to report his meetings to Filber.
Chen also framed a number of Hakak’s statements as not necessarily opposing Filber’s policies under certain circumstances and drew attention to areas where Hakak did not know the full picture of Filber’s actions and strategies.