The Case of Attempted Bribery in Bid to Nix Sara Netanyahu Charges, and How It Was Buried

Gerstel’s initial testimony suggested bribery for leniency toward Sara Netanyahu, but she later recanted. Eight months after being described as 'government corruption at the highest level,' Case 1270 has been closed

Sara Netanyahu at the United Nations in New York on September 26, 2018.
AFP

On February 20, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit called Supreme Court President Esther Hayut, asking her to meet with a police officer and provide testimony in a highly sensitive covert investigation that was underway. “I was just contacted by the press about it a little while ago,” Hayut replied, to Mendelblit’s astonishment.

Within hours, two police officers from the Lahav 433 unit showed up at Hayut’s office. They wanted to know what Hayut had heard from her close friend, former Central District Court President Hila Gerstl, about an alleged bribery offer her friend received in the summer of 2015, ahead of the race for the top law enforcement position of attorney general.

When the investigators finished obtaining Hayut’s testimony, something highly unusual occurred in terms of police-witness relations in a criminal proceeding: Hayut requested a copy of the investigators’ notes covering details of her testimony.

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The investigators stepped outside for a moment, talked it over and then made a copy of the testimony and gave it to Hayut. They did not ask Mendelblit or State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan to approve this, nor did they inform them about it. “They only learned of it afterwards,” says a source familiar with the investigation.

Hayut’s reason for requesting the copy became clear soon afterwards, when she issued a statement to the press containing a summary of what she told the police: She wanted it to be accurate.

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At the time, law enforcement officials felt this case, tagged Case 1270, had major criminal potential. “It concerns government corruption at the highest level,” a police representative said at a hearing on the matter and the sentiment was echoed by others.

On Thursday, police announced the closing of Case 1270.

The dramatic assertions heard in the courtroom in February were based on secret information relayed shortly before that by a person known to the public. This same person revealed to a senior police detective that with the imminent selection of the next attorney general, a very shady offer was made to candidate Judge Hila Gerstl: Promise to close the criminal case against Sara Netanyahu and your chances of winning the job will increase significantly, she was allegedly told.

The person suspected of being behind the offer to Gerstl was the Netanyahus’ media adviser, Nir Hefetz, who relayed it through a go-between – strategic consultant Eli Kamir, who was then acting unofficially as the judge’s campaign manager in the competition for the attorney general’s post. Hefetz and Kamir met through a mutual friend, soccer coach Avram Grant, and thereafter occasionally got together with a group of friends.

One of these friends, attorney Yehuda Weinstein, later introduced Kamir to Gerstl. In 2009, Kamir sought to help Weinstein get selected as attorney general and arranged a flattering cover story in the Yedioth Ahronoth weekend supplement. Hefetz was editing the supplement at the time, not long before he left the paper to work for the Netanyahus.

The information regarding the proposal to Gerstl led to consultations between the attorney general and state prosecutor, after which Gerstl was summoned to give testimony to police. The judge’s detailed responses gave the impression that the dark deal had in fact been proposed to her.

Police findings about the timing of certain phone calls just before Gerstl was due to be interviewed by the search committee strengthened the suspicions. Gerstl told investigators that she had confided in a few people, including Hayut, about the offer. The two judges had been close friends for years. Now Hayut had to explain why she failed to pass the information on.

The Supreme Court president testified that she and Gerstl met at a café many weeks after Mendelblit had been appointed attorney general. Gerstl was then the ombudsman for the State Prosecutor’s Office and Hayut was a justice on the Supreme Court. Hayut said her friend hinted at something shady that had taken place behind the scenes. She told investigators that Gerstl sounded horrified, but did not give an exact description of the events and declined to name names or provide more information. “Due to the dearth of details, I couldn’t do anything with it,” Hayut explained.

Police arrested the two main suspects, Hefetz and Kamir, who vehemently denied the allegations. Hefetz continued to stick to this denial after he turned state’s witness. He told investigators that when the search committee was meeting to decide who would be the next attorney general, Kamir asked to meet him at a Ramat Aviv coffee shop to see how he could promote Gerstl’s candidacy in the place where the decisions are made – the Prime Minister’s Residence.

Hefetz said he told Kamir he had no real way to help him, since Netanyahu wouldn’t share with him his thoughts about who the next attorney general should be. “In Netanyahu’s mind, I’m in the media compartment. If we were talking about the appointment of the director-general of the Communications Ministry, I could probably have some influence, but not with this.”

Kamir confirmed that he sought to help Gerstl win the job, that he met with Hefetz and that he told Gerstl about the meeting. But he completely denied the judge’s initial testimony about an alleged bribery offer – that she could boost her chances if she showed great leniency in the case involving the Prime Minister’s Residence.

At this point, the police wished to have Gerstl and Kamir confront one another, and were shocked when the judge refused. Apparently, Gerstl belatedly realized that she had gotten her good friend Hayut in trouble and was trying to somehow salvage the situation. Sources involved in the investigation say that from this point forward, Gerstl retreated from her original testimony and tried to eliminate the criminal aspect from her narrative. “The sharp turnabout in her version of events was the main, possibly the sole, reason why the case withered,” says one knowledgeable source.

Gerstl’s testimony yielded a number of curious statements, with the esteemed judge and candidate for attorney general claiming, for instance, not to be fully acquainted with criminal law. And she seemed to imply that Mendelblit may have been approached too. But he and Nitzan decided to limit the investigation to the suspected bribery offer to Gerstl. They also chose not to look into the equally volatile possibility of any of the other candidates having received an offer similar to the one that she got, at least according to her original testimony.

Gerstl, Hefetz and Kamir declined to comment.