Nir Hefetz, the state prosecution’s star witness and a former top aide to Benjamin Netanyahu, on Monday told the Jerusalem District Court that the former prime minister demanded updates on media coverage about him, even during meetings on national security.
Hefetz said that during the years 2009-2010 and 2014-2017, in which he worked as one of Netanyahu’s closest advisers, he witnessed up close that the former prime minister was focused on his media image above all other issues.
Some call Hefetz the most critical witness in the whole trial because he is one of only two witnesses who can point the finger directly at Netanyahu on media bribery charges for the all-important Case 4000, the Bezeq-Walla Affair.
However, the other witness, another former top Netanyahu aide, Shlomo Filber, will mostly provide narrative only on the Communications Ministry side of the affair, whereas Hefetz is able to connect the dots on both the Communications Ministry side and the Walla media side.
Later Monday, Hefetz testified about an alleged critical meeting between the former prime minister and Bezeq-Walla owner Shaul Elovitch in solidifying the media bribery scheme at the heart of Case 4000.
This meeting may have been one of the turning points in the nation’s history in driving Netanyahu toward a point where he would be later indicted, which would also eventually help lead to a political alliance which drove him from office.
Hefetz testified that Elovitch had brought him a document explaining what he demanded Netanyahu do to assist Bezeq regarding telecommunications policy in Netanyahu’s capacity also holding the Communications Ministry portfolio.
Although by Netanyahu’s order, Hefetz had more than a dozen meetings with Elovitch and was regularly in touch with him about the Walla website, the top Netanyahu aide said he was initially uninterested in helping Elovitch have a meeting about the issues specifically with the prime minister due to how busy he was with elections and political matters.
However, eventually Elovitch convinced Hefetz to bring the document to Netanyahu.
Hefetz said he was shocked at how carefully Netanyahu read the document and how much time he spent on it.
Immediately after meticulously reading the entire document, Netanyahu shredded it and then picked up his telephone and ordered scheduling a meeting in the near future with Elovitch.
Moreover, Hefetz described sneaking Elovitch into a back door of the Prime Minister’s Office on November 28, 2014, so that no one would detect his presence.
In addition, he said that he darkened the blinds to further lower any chances of anyone detecting the Netanyahu-Elovitch meeting.
Hefetz said he was not present for the meeting between the two.
But after the meeting he and other messengers of Netanyahu allegedly received new and more precise instructions for handling both the media coverage and regulatory sides of the media bribery scheme.
Further, Hefetz told the court that Elovitch was obsessed with firing former Communications Ministry director-general Avi Berger and had been equally obsessed with replacing Gilad Erdan as communications minister.
Elovitch’s purpose in seeking personnel challenges was in order to get his desired Bezeq-YES merger approved and without having to agree to major reforms that would enhance telecommunications sector competition.
On May 17, 2015, Netanyahu fired Berger, allegedly at Elovitch’s demand as part of the media bribery scheme and to continue Netanyahu’s control over relevant Walla media coverage.
Hefetz testified that shortly after, he received a call from Netanyahu and another top aide, Yonatan Locker, to update him about Berger’s firing and to discuss how any media fallout would be handled.
Also, Hefetz testified that in the second half of 2015, Yair Netanyahu started to gain greater influence over the prime minister and created a trend of greater dissatisfaction with Walla’s coverage of the Netanyahu family.
Hefetz said the system of his and former Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua’s involvement to handle such issues became insufficient once Yair got involved and was following coverage in much greater detail than anyone had previously.
At this point, Hefetz said that Shaul brought his wife, Iris Elovitch, into the mix to be the point person for handling Yair’s voluminous requests.
Besides the interesting twists this part of the testimony raised regarding Yair, part of Hefetz’s testimony on this count regarding Iris embarrassed the prosecution.
The defense noted that in his police testimony, Hefetz had said he never met Iris until December 2016 – something that could invalidate parts of his testimony in his court about Iris and reduce the charges against her.
Hefetz said that having Walla on Netanyahu’s side was “like medicine” to deal with scandals and priceless in converting undecided voters and rallying the base because it was seen as more objective than the Israel Hayom and Channel 20 outlets, which were viewed as biased in his favor.
Netanyahu himself attended for the second time in a week after skipping out on the trial since April.
The former prime minister mostly sought to project confidence, though he was also clearly somewhat uncomfortable.
Hefetz looked far more tense and serious upon entering the courtroom.
Yet, once he started to testify, he seemed to calm down and project that he was at peace with being a state’s witness.
Netanyahu and Hefetz only briefly glanced directly at each other without showing emotion, but mostly avoided eye contact.
At various times when Hefetz made statements potentially helpful to Netanyahu (most statements were negative, but not all), the former prime minister emphatically nodded his head.
Over the coming days and weeks, Hefetz is expected also to testify that Netanyahu gave him orders dozens of times over multiple years from 2013-2016 to order former Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua to direct coverage as the former prime minister wanted. Further, he will say that Netanyahu gave him orders to ensure that Communications Ministry policy benefited Bezeq and Walla owner Shaul Elovitch.
According to the amended indictment, from January 17-19, 2013 – days before the January 22, 2013 election – Netanyahu, through middleman Ze’ev Rubinstein, made no fewer than six demands for Elovitch to influence media coverage positively for him and negatively relating to Naftali Bennett and the Bayit Yehudi Party.
By March 2014, Hefetz, Sara Netanyahu and the prime minister himself got much more personally involved in passing on messages.
While there have been many important witnesses to date, especially Yeshua and Berger, Hefetz was closer to the prime minister than any of them.