How Netanyahu's Go-between Sought Positive News Coverage for a Quid-pro-quo

‘He’ll go to jail,’ a media executive says about Nir Hefetz, a man the prime minister apparently did not respect or trust very much

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Nir Hefetz in court in Tel Aviv, February 2018.
Nir Hefetz in court in Tel Aviv, February 2018.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Gidi Weitz
Gidi Weitz

A senior Israeli media executive says he warned Benjamin Netanyahu during the last election campaign about the prime minister’s personal spokesman Nir Hefetz, the man the police suspect offered the attorney general’s job to a judge if she dropped a case into Netanyahu’s wife Sara.

“He’ll go to jail, keep your distance,” said the executive, who declined to be named.

The executive says he got the impression that Netanyahu did not have a great deal of respect for Hefetz, and that it was possible Hefetz was at the center of power at the prime minister’s residence because of his unconditional loyalty to Sara Netanyahu.

The executive says his media company was beholden to Netanyahu at the time, and Hefetz served as an intermediary between the executive and officials at the prime minister’s residence, usually in an attempt to tone down articles about the Netanyahus.

At the same time, Hefetz worked as a “strategic consultant” for businesses. The executive says Hefetz made an offer: “I’ll help you with the prime minister if you take care of positive coverage for my clients.”

The executive says he turned down the deal and his relationship with Hefetz ran into trouble. In a text message just before the March 2015 election, the man wrote to Hefetz: “The end of every double agent is behind bars. You’ll do time if you don’t mend your ways.”

With the term “double agent,” the executive hinted at Hefetz’s relationships with two bitter enemies: Netanyahu and Arnon Mozes, the publisher and owner of the daily Yedioth Ahronoth. Hefetz, who once had a top position at Yedioth, reportedly could be heard bragging that he was the only person in Israel “connected to the two most powerful people in the country.”

Toward the end of 2014, during Netanyahu’s efforts to increase his influence on Israel's media, Netanyahu reportedly met in secret with Mozes. Mozes raised the possibility that Hefetz could be appointed the director general of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, the former public broadcaster. Hefetz had been a candidate for the post before, during the premiership of Ariel Sharon.

It will be good for both of us, Mozes allegedly told a reserved Netanyahu.

Netanyahu had designated Hefetz for a different job, one that would be necessary if the alleged positive-coverage quid-pro-quo deal with Mozes ever came about. Hefetz would be the go-between with Yedioth’s editors, the person who would ensure coverage in Netanyahu’s favor.

This was Hefetz’s main function in his service for Netanyahu. When Channel 10’s fate was also in the balance, Hefetz was the go-between for Netanyahu. In one conversation between the two sides, Hefetz allegedly proposed a lifeline: getting rid of Raviv Drucker’s “Hamakor” investigative program that plagued the Netanyahus. In this way, the station would remain on the air. Channel 10 declined the offer, and when asked about the conversation in the past, Hefetz angrily denied it.

As the CEO of the Walla news website, Ilan Yeshua, reportedly warned his journalists, “If I leave, they’ll appoint Hefetz in my place.” He reportedly sometimes called Netanyahu “Kim,” as in the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, and had worse words for Hefetz.

Walla, owned by telecom company Bezeq, is important because the police suspect that Netanyahu may also have done a positive-coverage quid pro quo with Bezeq's controlling shareholder, Shaul Elovitch.

In conversations with friends in recent years, Yeshua reportedly has repeated that Bezeq sees Walla’s main role, if not its only one, as its influence on regulatory issues. In other words, Bezeq kept the website going so it could be a card to play, above all with the Netanyahus.

As a senior Walla editor told Haaretz’s Yaniv Kubovich when he was offered the website’s police-reporter job two years ago: “You can write freely about everything, about the police and [Public Security Minister Gilad] Erdan. Everything except for Netanyahu.”

In return, Bezeq allegedly won favors from the government worth hundreds of millions of shekels. Things turned bad for Netanyahu this week when a director general of the Communications Ministry under Netanyahu, Shlomo Filber, turned state’s evidence. Sources say Hefetz would bombard Yeshua with orders and requests to slant Walla’s coverage.

And as Dan Margalit has reported in Haaretz, before Netanyahu decided who would be the next attorney general, Hefetz asked Margalit to meet with then-cabinet secretary (and now attorney general) Avichai Mendelblit. Margalit, then a senior columnist for the free, right-wing daily Israel Hayom, was a major critic of Mendelblit because of his alleged role in the Harpaz affair – a 2011 scandal involving the selection of the military’s next chief of staff.

Mendelblit and Hefetz visited Margalit at his home; Hefetz left after a few polite words of introduction. The meeting between Mendelblit and Margalit was scheduled to last an hour but went on for three hours.

“Would you be able to put Netanyahu on trial?” Margalit asked. Mendelblit said yes, and the two parted ways amicably.

This story shows how Hefetz worked to get Mendelblit appointed attorney general. This suspicion of involvement in the appointment process was reinforced this week when Maariv's Ben Caspit reported that the police were investigating allegations that Hefetz offered the attorney general post to Judge Hila Gerstl if she dropped a case into Sara Netanyahu.

Hila Gerstl

People who have spoken with retired Tel Aviv District Court Judge Hila Gerstl have been impressed by her ability to tell a story. She has an excellent memory for detail and the ability to add emotion.

Gerstl is friends with the strategic consultant Eli Kamir, a former journalist. As emerged earlier this week, Kamir was allegedly the messenger when his friend Hefetz allegedly offered the attorney general’s job to Gerstl if she closed the case into Sara Netanyahu’s expenses at the prime minister’s residence.

A few months ago, a journalist from the new Kan public broadcasting corporation, Shaul Amsterdamski, reported that Kamir had provided Bezeq and its controlling shareholder Elovitch with consulting services at the unheard-of price of $40,000 a month over three years.

Advisers or deal makers like Kamir have played a key role in a number of large corruption cases: the Holyland real estate affair, the Yisrael Beiteinu affair and now Netanyahu’s multiple cases. Kamir is a good friend of the previous attorney general, Yehuda Weinstein, and helped during the process of getting Weinstein chosen for the job.

In March 2009, a few months before Weinstein was chosen, Yedioth’s weekend magazine – which Hefetz was editor of at the time – published a very favorable article on Weinstein. With the headline “Fighter,” it called Weinstein a “defense attorney with great esteem and achievements.”

In the article, many of Weinstein’s clients and colleagues praised him, talking about his generosity, compassion and professionalism. The explanation for the story was Weinstein’s joining the defense team of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (who in the end did prison time after a  conviction in the Holyland affair).

One person interviewed for the article was told Weinstein might be a candidate for attorney general, while a member of the attorney-general search committee has told Haaretz: “What stood out in the race was Yedioth Ahronoth’s support for Weinstein.”

In late 2015, Gerstl was a candidate for attorney general, though she knew her chances were slim. She understood that Mendelblit was the clear favorite of Netanyahu and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.

The police suspect that Kamir met with Hefetz, who was close to the Netanyahus, on the matter so as to promote the candidacy of his good friend Gerstl. Hefetz allegedly told Kamir that he should ask Gerstl a sensitive question that if she answered correctly would greatly improve her chances of becoming attorney general: Would she be willing to close the prime-minister’s-residence case against Sara Netanyahu if she got the job?

When Kamir made the offer to Gerstl, she reportedly was shocked and refused, deciding to tell the story to the press before losing her nerve.

She also never reported the possible bribery attempt to the law enforcement authorities. Ostensibly her friendship with Kamir and her fears of getting entangled in the affair influenced her decision. Sources have told Haaretz that she shared the story with a few friends, including Supreme Court Justice Esther Hayut, who’s now the court’s president.

This week Hayut answered police investigators’ questions on the matter and issued a statement. She confirmed that Gerstl had informed her of the offer but said her good friend hadn’t mentioned any names. “Because of the hazy story that Gerstl chose to tell, [Supreme Court] President Hayut did not have any basis for taking any steps,” the statement read.

Gerstl said nothing this week. When she does talk, it will be interesting to hear if she actually spared Hayut the details or if she told a precise story as she usually does.

Even if Hayut received an anorectic version of the story, it seems she was required to push Gerstl to turn to the law enforcement authorities and report it – or at the very least ensure that the explosive material reached them. Then the public would have known a long time earlier what Netanyahu’s cronies were up to for such a sensitive post.

Avichai Mendelblit

“It’s bad-spirited nonsense, simply total idiocy,” former Justice Minister Moshe Nissim told Haaretz this week. In recent years Nissim has filled a very sensitive role: the government’s representative on the search committee for choosing the next attorney general.

Nissim said that in late 2015, Netanyahu withdrew his support for Mendelbit’s candidacy and feverishly sought a more convenient candidate. The reason was Mendelblit’s comments to the search committee. There he was asked if he would order the police to open an investigation into Netanyahu and indict him if the evidence warranted it.

Mendelblit gave the obvious answer: yes. “What did they expect, he’d say no?” Nissim said. “If he had said no, I would have withdrawn my support for his candidacy.”

Nissim told Haaretz that when he met with Netanyahu and Shaked just before the search committee met, he realized that Mendelblit was their preferred candidate. The fear that the appointment would run into trouble came up at the meeting because Mendelblit was cabinet secretary for Netanyahu at the time, and some people would demand a cooling-off period.

If Mendelblit’s candidacy were ruled out (which it wasn’t), the name of a former director general of the Justice Ministry, Guy Rothkopf, was mentioned as the government’s replacement candidate. Nissim said that the entire time the committee worked on the nomination, Netanyahu was steadfast in his support for Mendelblit. Gerstl wasn’t even considered. Someone else involved in the selection process said Netanyahu had great reservations about Gerstl.

If the police dive deep down into the Gerstl affair, it’s likely Mendelblit will have to testify – as will other former attorney-general candidates who are now state prosecutors or senior officials at the Justice Ministry such as Raz Nizri and Avi Licht, who are now Mendelblit’s deputies. These officials will have to say whether any of Netanyahu’s associates – in particular Hefetz – tried to hint to any of the candidates the possibility of a corrupt deal.

This is the reason Mendelblit will have to recuse himself from handling this very sensitive case. He can’t be responsible for an investigation that concerns him personally and in which he’ll have to testify. And he can’t be the one to decide whether the investigation will be limited or expanded.

All the information floating around seems to point to Netanyahu wanting Mendelblit appointed attorney general. He reportedly did not respect Hefetz and did not trust him, so it’s doubtful whether Netanyahu even knew of the offer to Gerstl.

It’s possible that Hefetz was acting on his own, or on the assumption that this was what Sara Netanyahu wanted. The prime minister vehemently denies any knowledge of such an offer, but even if this is true, the Hefetz-Kamir-Gerstl affair provides further evidence of the damage caused by Sara Netanyahu in her husband’s corruption cases: her connection with Hefetz, the gifts she received from billionaire Arnon Milchan, and her obsession with burnishing her image as part of the Netanyahu-Bezeq-Walla case.

It won’t be a surprise if Sara Netanyahu now becomes the first line of defense for her husband.

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