In a stunning setback for the state prosecution that could prove decisive when the verdict comes down for Benjamin Netanyahu, star witness Nir Hefetz told the Jerusalem District Court on Tuesday that the former prime minister did not believe in real-time that he had perpetrated media bribery.
Hefetz was describing a 2015 article in Haaretz that first portrayed the basic outline of what later became known as Case 4000, the Bezeq-Walla Affair.
He said that when he first spoke about the article with Netanyahu, the former prime minister dismissed the characterization of bribery as: “They are chasing after me.”
In a profound moment, Hefetz then turned to the judges and slowly said, “and there is no doubt in my mind that this was his authentic reaction,” noting that Netanyahu had been criminally probed in the 1990s.
So damaging was Hefetz’s statement that the prosecution intervened to advise the court that Hefetz was just giving his own estimate about Netanyahu, thereby trying to downplay that its star witness essentially just said Netanyahu had no criminal intent.
Despite the damage, Hefetz did help support many other aspects of the prosecution’s case in his second day of testimony.
He said he was acting under direct instructions from the former prime minister when he intervened with Walla’s media coverage.
Hefetz said Netanyahu had “full” (spelling out letter by letter for emphasis the word “mi-leh-ah” or “full” in Hebrew) control of all interactions with the media, especially Walla.
Netanyahu’s former top aide said the former prime minister especially invested his energies on weekends, when he would spend more time going over specific news items in detail with his wife, Sara, and grown-up son Yair.
Following these Netanyahu family sessions, Hefetz said he would receive calls with instructions about what orders to give Walla about their coverage from a mix of the prime minister and the other two family members on speakerphone, but that the prime minister was always on the call.
At some point, Sara and Yair even attempted to take greater direct control of media issues that related to them. But Hefetz said the former prime minister pushed back and maintained direct control and interactions with his top aide even on these issues.
The only exception, noted Hefetz, were entirely positive stories about Sara that were completely uncontroversial.
Filling in the picture of a statement he made during Monday’s testimony, Hefetz explained why he maintained that Netanyahu worked constantly on media issues, including Walla, even demanding being interrupted during security meetings.
His earlier testimony was that “there were one or two incidents where I acted independently,” thinking that Netanyahu was in an important policy meeting where he would not want to be interrupted for mere media matters.
Yet afterward, Netanyahu gave him direct orders that he had acted incorrectly, and should always interrupt him regarding media issues no matter what meeting he was involved in and how serious was the issue.
In a highly controversial moment, Hefetz revealed that many of his direct discussions with Netanyahu about media issues included one of the defense lawyers currently in the courtroom (likely Amit Hadad).
At another point, when Hefetz was leaving the room temporarily during certain legal debates between the lawyers that determined witnesses were not supposed to here, Elovitch lawyer Boaz Ben Tzur called after him, “And you can take your eavesdropping recording cell phone with you!”
Both of these moments, and several other moments where the state prosecution sought to “refresh the memory” of Hefetz who frequently forgot what he told police when interrogated, led to an unprecedented blow-up between the prosecution and defense lawyers.
The conflagration went on and off for nearly an hour, completely disrupting the flow of Hefetz’s testimony until the judges lost patience with the defense and told them to hold their counter-arguments for when they cross-examine Hefetz.
Hefetz then connected the Walla media part of the bribery scheme to the regulatory Bezeq part of the scheme.
“I always first spoke to Benjamin Netanyahu and Sara Netanyahu before speaking to Shlomo Filber” to give him directives on giving favorable treatment to Bezeq said Hefetz.
“I have no expertise, I cannot give him directives without them,” Hefetz said, meaning he did not feel comfortable telling Filber how to handle Communications Ministry policy.
In other words, when Hefetz told Filber how to please Bezeq, it was only after he was given direct orders from the former prime minister.
At the same time, Hefetz distanced himself from testimony Filber gave, and that he gave Filber many instructions about regulatory issues.
Hefetz said his discussions with Filber were more about media coverage issues and appointments at Walla and in other media outlets.
In two emotional moments, Hefetz took responsibility for breaking the law when he destroyed evidence by deleting his text messages with various persons involved in the alleged bribery scheme, and described his interactions with Sara and Yair regarding deleting messages.
He said that when he met with Sarah and Yair in December 2016, Yair was physically shaking in panic that Bezeq-Walla owner Elovitch must delete all messages between them to avoid evidence of the alleged media bribery scheme.
The Elovitch family had already made the same request of Hefetz.
There is no direct evidence that Benjamin Netanyahu knew about Sara and Yair deleting their messages to cover up evidence, and the former prime minister’s wife and son are not under indictment.
Hefetz also told Sara that Elovitch did not make senior appointments to Walla without both her and the former prime minister signing off.
Hefetz said that Sara at an earlier date had ordered him to order Filber to cease helping Bezeq due to Elovitch not making Walla favorable enough to Netanyahu.
However, Filber said that due to a State Comptroller’s Report on the issue, he was no longer helping Bezeq.
Hefetz noted that Benjamin Netanyahu had not been involved in this particular instruction to Filber, leading the court to advise the prosecution to stop focusing on Sara, since she is not a defendant.
Media reports indicated increased potential threats against Hefetz from Netanyahu supporters could lead to more actions by police to defend him.
Hefetz is considered critical for proving media bribery against the former prime minister in the Case 4000 Bezeq-Walla Affair because he interacted directly with Netanyahu on both the media coverage and communications policy.
According to the indictment, the premise of Case 4000 was that Netanyahu gave favorable communications policy treatment to Shaul Elovitch’s Bezeq in exchange for control over news coverage of Walla, also owned by Elovitch.