By Jeffrey Heller
JERUSALEM, Feb 21 : A confidant of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has agreed to turn state’s witness in one of several corruption investigations posing a serious threat to the conservative leader’s political survival, local media said.
Shlomo Filber’s decision to testify for the state against his former boss is a dramatic turn for Netanyahu, whose inner circle had so far seemed watertight. Filber’s change of heart could leave the tough-talking Netanyahu at his most vulnerable yet, with one critic writing him off as a “political corpse”.
The development has also fuelled speculation that Netanyahu, 68, will call a snap election to try to stall legal proceedings during the campaign and rally his right-wing power base behind him.
The prime minister denies all the allegations against him and has said he will seek a fifth term in office in a national ballot due in late 2019. So far, partners in his governing coalition have stood by him, showing little appetite for bringing down the government over the affairs and risking an early poll.
Filber, a personal appointment of Netanyahu’s to head the Communications Ministry, was arrested this week along with top executives at Bezeq Telecom, Israel’s largest telecommunications company.
In unsourced reports, Israeli media said Filber has now agreed to testify for the state in the case, providing evidence likely to complicate Netanyahu’s battle to overcome his legal crisis.
A spokesman for the police fraud squad declined to comment. Filber’s lawyer was not immediately available to confirm that a deal had been reached.
Police suspect Bezeq received regulatory benefits, and in return, Netanyahu enjoyed favourable media coverage on a popular news website controlled by Bezeq’s former chairman.
Bezeq executives have denied the allegations.
Netanyahu, who has led Israel periodically for 12 years since 1996, is awaiting a decision by the attorney-general on whether to indict him in two other cases as police recommended last week.
Polls before Filber’s decision suggested Netanyahu would just about survive if an election was held now, despite widespread suspicion against him.
A survey published on Feb. 14 showed that almost half of Israel’s electorate believe police allegations of bribery against Netanyahu, while 25 percent said they believed Netanyahu’s denials. The remainder said they did not know whom to believe.
But when people were asked whether he should remain in office or temporarily step aside, 49 percent said he should stay put, while 43 percent that he should step down temporarily Netanyahu posted an opinion poll commissioned by Likud on Facebook on Wednesday that showed that his party would boost its representation in the 120-member parliament from 30 seats to 34 if elections were held now.
“But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew,” Netanyahu, who has said he is a victim of a political witch hunt, wrote in the posting, quoting Exodus 1:12.
But political commentator Yossi Verter, writing in Israel’s left-wing Haaretz, a newspaper highly critical of Netanyahu and his policies, described him as a “political corpse” and predicted his own party would turn against him.
“He is likely to call early elections in the next few months. But it’s unlikely that he’ll still be head of the Likud party when they happen, even less likely that he would win them, and exceedingly unlikely that he’d be able to form a coalition with conviction and jail time staring him in the face,” Verter wrote.
On Tuesday, police alleged that Netanyahu’s former spokesman tried to bribe a judge to drop a fraud case against Netanyahu’s wife. The same associate is also a suspect in the Bezeq investigation.
Netanyahu described that allegation as “hallucinatory”.