Star state witness and former aide to former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Nir Hefetz, on Wednesday shot the prosecution in the foot again, telling the Jerusalem District Court, “The DNA of Walla was hostile to Netanyahu.”
Though Hefetz has provided significant ammunition to the prosecution to help prove its allegations against Netanyahu in the Case 4000 Bezeq-Walla Affair, he has also given testimony that has heavily damaged that case.
The prosecution wants to present a narrative that Netanyahu controlled coverage at Walla in exchange for regulatory favoritism he gave to Bezeq. Both companies are owned by Shaul Elovitch.
When the prosecution’s own star witness, Hefetz, testifies that Walla was at its core anti-Netanyahu, he seems to be saying exactly the opposite.
Part of what was stunning about Hefetz’s testimony was that Netanyahu lawyer Boaz Ben Tzur did not even need to fool him into making the statement.
Hefetz was happy to offer criticism of Walla as being anti-Netanyahu with very little nudging when presented with a line of anti-Netanyahu articles in December 2014, leading into the 2015 elections.
He continued, saying that most journalists at Walla and broadly in Israel “are all the same. You could sit on Rothschild Boulevard [in Tel Aviv] and they come from the same socioeconomic level with the same socialist worldview. It is rare to find someone right-wing or nationalist.”
Further, he said, “If Elovitch and [former Walla CEO Ilan] Yeshua had flown to Antarctica, all of Walla would have been against Netanyahu,” referencing that Elovitch and Yeshua led the alleged scheme to slant coverage back in Netanyahu’s favor.
Sources have said the prosecution view of such statements is that if not for Netanyahu’s media bribery scheme with Elovitch, Walla on its own would have been far more negative toward Netanyahu.
However, due to the media bribery scheme, when Netanyahu or his messengers intervened – allegedly in 315 instances from 2013-2016 – Hefetz would say that the former prime minister was able to often alter that hostile core leaning in his favor.
Neither Hefetz nor the prosecution would argue that this meant Netanyahu and his messengers would be able to block every anti-Netanyahu article written up quickly by every reporter that might not have been coordinated with the top editors in advance.
Accordingly, the prosecution would argue that it does not need to prove that Netanyahu’s control over Walla coverage extended to every article, only that it was extremely extensive and part of an illegal scheme involving a quid pro quo in which he abused his power as prime minister.
In contrast, Ben Tzur has argued that the long line of anti-Netanyahu articles is a gaping hole in the prosecution case from which it cannot recover.
Further, Ben Tzur has claimed that Walla’s core hostility to Netanyahu explains why he would justifiably try to battle for more balanced coverage.
Meanwhile, late Wednesday night, Netanyahu filed his response to the High Court of Justice maintaining he can keep a $300,000 donation from his cousin and tycoon Natan Milikovsky.
He also argued that a $2 million loan he received from tycoon Spencer Partrich was perfectly legal and that there was no rush for him to repay the loan.
Netanyahu’s legal brief came after Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit declared to the High Court last month that the $300,000 donation was blatantly illegal and must be immediately returned, and that the $2 million loan might be, and should be returned in installments over five years (as opposed to the 10-year term of the loan.)
One twist is that Milikovsky has since died, so the question is really whether the funds will be returned to his estate.
Another twist in the dispute is that former state comptroller Joseph Shapira and a committee he appointed had declared both funding instances to be illegal for helping Netanyahu with his legal defense, since some of the charges against Netanyahu relate to alleged illegal gifts from tycoons – but that current State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman and his new committee tried to initially give Netanyahu backing.
Englman backed off once Mandelblit started to turn sour on Netanyahu regarding the issue already back in 2020.
Netanyahu’s brief argued that Mandelblit had previously taken more lenient positions on all of the above issues and cannot now take a tougher position, and that he has support from the current comptroller committee.
Mandelblit has said that he did not know about Netanyahu’s investments in Milikovsky’s company at the earlier period when he had taken a more lenient stance.
Netanyahu also said the fact that he is now a mere member of Knesset and not prime minister should mean that all forms of donations toward his legal defense should be permitted.
Critics say the funds were given to Netanyahu when he was still prime minister and he is worth a reported NIS 50 million, so he should not be making an issue of paying for his own legal defense.
Former prime minister Ehud Olmert was allowed to receive donations for his legal defense, but only after resigning from all public roles and becoming a private citizen.
In the Holy Land Affair, the former prime minister was convicted by the Tel Aviv District Court of bribery based on funds given to his brother, something which could parallel Mandelblit’s argument that giving funds to Sara Netanyahu cannot be separated from the prime minister either.