Did Israeli police interrogating Nir Hefetz cross the line? - analysis

Hefetz’s testimony was chilling not because of anything it revealed about Netanyahu, but rather because of what it revealed about the tactics used to get Hefetz to turn state’s evidence.

Former Netanyahu aide Nir Hefetz (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)
Former Netanyahu aide Nir Hefetz
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)

One word describes state witness Nir Hefetz’s testimony Tuesday and Wednesday in Jerusalem District Court in the trial of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu: chilling.

Hefetz is the prosecution’s “star” witness in its cases against Netanyahu. A former journalist whose resumé included being editor of Yediot Aharonot’s popular weekly magazine, Hefetz served as Netanyahu’s spokesman from 2009-2011, and from 2014 to 2017 was the Netanyahu family’s media adviser, as well as a campaign strategist for the Likud. In other words, Hefetz was a close Netanyahu confidant.

Hefetz’s testimony was chilling not because of anything it revealed about Netanyahu – his obsession with the press and his wife’s involvement in decision-making were already well known – but rather because of what it revealed about the tactics used to get Hefetz to turn state’s evidence so that the prosecution could nail the former prime minister.

Even before Hefetz’s cross-examination by the defense that began on Tuesday, it was rumored for some time that problematic tactics were used to get him to turn state’s evidence. Already in 2019, Channel 12’s Amit Segal reported that inappropriate means were used to pressure Hefetz.

Hefetz alluded to this on Monday, his final full day of questioning by the prosecution.

 OPPOSITION LEADER Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a Likud faction meeting in the Knesset last week. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90) OPPOSITION LEADER Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a Likud faction meeting in the Knesset last week. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

“I was under heavy pressure and the conditions were very difficult,” he said of his 15 days of detention and interrogation in 2018, adding that the pressure “reached monstrous proportions.”

Nevertheless, he said, “My testimony is unequivocally the truth.”

On Tuesday and Wednesday, under cross-examination by Netanyahu lawyer Boaz Ben-Tzur, Hefetz detailed that “monstrous” pressure and described “draconian” interrogation methods.

These included sleep deprivation, lack of food, failure to receive medical treatment and unsanitary conditions. And that was just on the physical side.

Emotionally, he testified that he was threatened over and over that information would come to light that would bring about his financial ruin, destroy his family, and make it so that neither his children nor his wife would ever want to see him again.

A part of this scheme was allegedly a maneuver by which his wife and another woman were called into the police station, with the interrogators making sure that Hefetz would see them in the corridors in passing. The interrogators also allegedly tried to get him to switch lawyers.

And then there was the fear factor.

“In detention, they put me in a filthy cell, like a cage for monkeys,” he said Wednesday. “In the beginning, they brought in all kinds of detainees dressed in orange who spoke Arabic. Then they brought in Gazans.

“One of them recognized me with Netanyahu. They started to shout ‘Netanyahu! Netanyahu!’ and shook their handcuffs. Along with other things that happened in the cell, I thought that I was in danger, that I would not get out of there alive.”

What makes this all the more chilling is that this is how the police interrogated one of the most well-connected people in the land, a man who was close to the prime minister at the time, who was on a first-name basis with the country’s political, business and media movers and shakers.

Yet the investigators allegedly had no qualms in using questionable tactics, some of which Netanyahu’s lawyers said went beyond what was legally permitted, to get Hefetz to become a state witness and testify against his former boss.

If this is all true, then in the minds of the interrogators, the ends – getting Netanyahu – justified all means, which included allegedly riding roughshod over what is permitted in interrogations and in destroying a man’s family.

And if that is how interrogators operate when dealing with a man who knows the ropes, has the top lawyers, knows the law, knows the most prominent people in the land, knows his rights, knows the language and knows very well how things work in this country, one shudders to think what might go on in interrogation rooms of an average person suspected of wrongdoing who does not have those advantages.

If the police could treat Hefetz in such a manner – and he is a man who has some recourse – then what goes on in interrogation rooms to people who don’t know their rights or have top lawyers, or who might not even have a good command of the language?

When the Netanyahu trial is all over and done, many hard questions will need to be asked about various aspects of these cases: from the behavior of the prime minister, to the decisions made by the attorney-general, to the runaway leaks, to how the investigation was carried out.

Among the questions that will need to be asked are what means are illegitimate in interrogating a suspect and what leverage is permissible in getting him to turn state’s evidence. Because one thing the high-profile and wall-to-wall coverage of Netanyahu’s trial have done already is to expose tactics and measures used in investigating white-collar crime and interrogating white-collar suspects that reasonable people might find highly objectionable.