Former communications ministry director-general Avi Berger told the Jerusalem District Court in the public corruption trial of Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday that the former prime minister fired him within weeks of receiving a threat after he pursued reforms that would affect Bezeq.
Berger testified that he had many meetings with Bezeq owner Shaul Elovitch in the weeks before Netanyahu, who was acting communications minister at the time, fired him on May 17, 2015 after Elovitch threatened him for not dropping policy reforms that the latter feared would harm the telecommunications giant.
Berger’s testimony is a major turning point in the trial for two reasons.
First, the prosecution has now moved from presenting its Case 4000 narrative about how Netanyahu allegedly interfered with Walla’s news coverage to how the former prime minister allegedly influenced government policy to favor of Bezeq.
The basis of Case 4000 is that Netanyahu and Elovitch, who also owned the Walla news web site, sealed a deal over favorable coverage of the prime minister and his family in exchange for government policy support for Bezeq.
Second, Berger’s dismissal is allegedly one of the most blatant moves that Netanyahu made to help Bezeq.
At one meeting, Berger said that Elovitch called him aside to tell him a “personal story” about a former top government official who was fired and then had trouble finding work.
The former ministry director-general said he understood that this to be a blunt threat by Elovitch and that he was so shaken by the conversation that he spoke with the ministry’s legal adviser, the Justice Ministry director-general and its director of High Court issues to consult how to act.
Ultimately, Berger ignored Elovitch’s alleged veiled threat, but Netanyahu fired him shortly afterwards anyway.
One policy issue regarding raised Netanyahu’s anger with Berger was the latter’s refusal to approve the Bezeq-YES merger, which is at the heart of Case 4000.
Berger and most of the ministry’s officials considered the merger to be problematic on regulatory grounds.
A second significant shift was Berger’s support for moderating price changes and increasing competition with Bezeq.
Berger told the court on Tuesday that when he took up his post in November 2013, he was merely maintaining the clear position of the ministry which had already been set by experts for years.
For example, Berger noted that Likud’s Moshe Kahlon and Gilad Erdan, who were communications ministers during his tenure, both strongly supported reforms to bring in more companies to compete with Bezeq.
He said that in the short-term, increasing competition was intended to reduce prices and improve service, and that in the longer term, the introduction of fast Internet was facilitated.
The state prosecution has said that Netanyahu’s interventions in firing Berger and slowing the reforms delayed the proliferation of faster Internet by years.
Other vignettes provided by Berger related to Netanyahu, and his senior aide, Eitan Tzafrir.
Berger testified that in their only in-person meeting, Netanyahu told him to follow any orders he was given by Tzafrir as if they had been issued directly by the prime minister.
Tzafrir then regularly harangued Berger to approve the Bezeq-YES merger and to hold off on any reforms which would increase competition against Bezeq, said Berger.
When Berger did not comply, Tzafrir started to repeat to him that he would be fired soon and should resign since no one wanted him in his post any longer.
Further, Berger related that when Netanyahu finally called to fire him on May 17, 2015, he was on his way to brief Ze’ev Elkin, who he had thought would be taking over as communications minister.
He said that the conversation was very short and that once Netanyahu informed him in no uncertain terms that he was to be replaced, he declined to stay on to hand over to his successor.
Former Netanyahu campaign manager Shlomo Filber was Netanyahu’s pick to replace Berger and he pushed through the prime minister’s desired policies.
Filber denied wrongdoing for years, but eventually turned state’s witness against Netanyahu in early 2018, which many say was the tipping point that led Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit to conclude that he was obligated to indict the prime minister.
In one surprise on Tuesday, the prosecution tried to extract testimony from Berger also relating to the Case 1000, the illegal gifts affair.
The prosecution had hoped he would provide background information about relations between tycoon Arnon Milchan and Netanyahu, especially concerning a proposed transaction for Milchan and then-Channel 10.
However, the court accepted the defense’s arguments that Berger’s role as a witness in Case 1000 had not been sufficiently specified in the indictment to allow him to provide evidence on that issue.
Berger will likely be testifying for several days or weeks, after which former antitrust commissioner Dror Strum and Felix Cohen, the former CFO of Elovitch’s Eurocom firm, are expected to testify on communications policy issues.