Analysis |

Netanyahu Ex-aide's Testimony Pleased Everybody, but His Lawyers Are Still Sweating

Nir Hefetz's comment that 'neither I nor Netanyahu had any awareness of anything criminal' helps, but an 'accumulation of incidents' conviction against a former top cop augurs badly for Bibi regarding his ties to the media

Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel
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Nir Hefetz at the Jerusalem District Court on Tuesday for his testimony in Benjamin Netanyahu's corruption trial.
Nir Hefetz at the Jerusalem District Court on Tuesday for his testimony in Benjamin Netanyahu's corruption trial. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel

Nir Hefetz, a former aide to Benjamin Netanyahu who later turned state’s evidence, managed to please all sides with his testimony in the former prime minister’s corruption trial. He satisfied the prosecution, didn’t short-change the defense and provided the media with headlines, sometimes glancing at the reporters in the courtroom to make sure they got the message.

His testimony, which ended this week, failed to prove decisively that Netanyahu knew that his actions were illegal. Still, Hefetz left the defense attorneys with reason to worry.

“What, they don’t understand that this website is theirs?” Hefetz quoted Shaul Elovitch as saying about the Walla news website and the Netanyahu family. That was during testimony on the most serious of the three cases, the one where Netanyahu is charged with bribery. According to the indictment, he granted regulatory favors to telecom company Bezeq, where Elovitch was the controlling shareholder, in exchange for tilted coverage from Walla, then a Bezeq subsdiary.

Netanyahu, according to Hefetz, was the smartest guy in the room, someone who always thought several steps ahead, someone who set goals and worked with resolve to achieve them. He was also someone who felt comfortable asking Elovitch for favors when he knew that the businessman needed his help on regulatory issues.

It’s reasonable to think that the man famous for saying “there are no free lunches” conditioned the help on the favors. Nevertheless, this still needs to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

According to Hefetz, Netanyahu was extremely driven to obtain favorable media coverage. Aside from his involvement with Walla, he tried to persuade two foreign billionaires (separately) to set up a media outlet whose business plan he wrote himself, meddled in the ownership of Channel 10 television, investigated whether the daily Yedioth Ahronoth was open to a deal, aided Channel 20 television – a station he has co-opted – and helped establish the free tabloid Israel Hayom.

His lawyers didn’t deny this drive, and for Netanyahu, that’s a problem. In bribery cases, the value of the favor received is judged by its value to the recipient. So even if it’s true, as Netanyahu’s lawyers argued, that Walla’s articles were legitimate news items with value to the public, what matters is their subjective value to Netanyahu.

Former Bezeq controlling shareholder Shaul Elovitch at the court last week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The most important incident Hefetz described was a meeting where Elovitch complained to Hefetz about the Communications Ministry’s treatment of him and said he needed help to win its permission to merge Bezeq and a subsidiary, the Yes satellite television provider. Elovitch then handed Hefetz a document on the subject and asked him to give it to Netanyahu, Hefetz said.

Netanyahu quickly shredded the document, then told his secretary to set up a meeting between him and Elovitch, Hefetz added. These actions, at a time when Netanyahu was demanding skewed coverage from Walla, might show that he was conditioning regulatory favors for Bezeq on such coverage.

Someone to run with

When questioned by the police, Elovitch confirmed that he met with Hefetz but said they discussed Walla’s coverage, not regulatory issues. Both he and Netanyahu denied the existence of the document.

When asked during cross-examination why he never mentioned the shredding before his court appearance, Hefetz said this didn’t strike him as unusual because Netanyahu “shreds everything.” But then he was shown a copy of his police statement, where he said that Netanyahu “read it and put it on the table,” not that he shredded it. This sparked questions from the judges.

It’s hard to say how much damage this incident caused the prosecution, but it certainly let the defense sow doubts.

Hefetz also said that during one election campaign, Netanyahu invited Elovitch to meet even though he had no intention of pushing through the Bezeq-Yes deal before the election. If so, why did he call the meeting? “Because otherwise, Walla wouldn’t have run after us” – complied with Netanyahu’s requests – Hefetz answered.

Hefetz. He said that treating positive news coverage "as a bribe is delusional." Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

If so, that’s a clear description of a bribe. But Hefetz didn’t say that Netanyahu made such a remark; he was merely offering his own opinion. And that carries little evidentiary weight.

The defense lawyers liked Hefetz’s description of the Israeli media, especially Walla, as a gang of leftists, but what followed was less comfortable for them. Walla was so hostile to Netanyahu, Hefetz said, that if Elovitch and then-Editor-in-Chief Ilan Yeshua “had gone to Antarctica, the site would have worked against him with all its might.”

This bolstered the prosecution’s argument that Elovitch was tilting the site’s coverage and emphasized how important the connection with Elovitch was to Netanyahu. Hefetz also noted that positive coverage from a hostile site is more credible, which explains the focus on Walla rather than friendlier outlets.

Netanyahu’s lawyers argued during cross-examination that everyone who owns a media outlet dictates its editorial policies to some degree. But Hefetz said that Netanyahu contacted other owners only in times of crisis, whereas press releases were sent to Elovitch nonstop. “Netanyahu had a standing order to send everything to Elovitch,” Hefetz said.

When Judge Moshe Bar-Am asked why press releases were sent to Elovitch but not to other owners, Hefetz replied, “I had a personal connection with Mr. Elovitch, and to some extent also with Yeshua. That was the only thing to do, because the site was hostile.” Asked why he deemed this personal connection advantageous, Hefetz answered, “because of what Mr. Elovitch told me about his commitment to Mr. Netanyahu.”

Still, Hefetz also said that “treating positive coverage as a bribe is delusional,” adding, “Neither I nor Netanyahu had any awareness of anything criminal.” These quotes seemed to serve the defense. So did Hefetz’s description of Netanyahu’s reaction to an investigative report by Haaretz on the prime minister’s relationship with Walla.

“This thesis seemed utterly ridiculous to him,” Hefetz said. “He dismissed it offhandedly .... His reaction was that this was truly laughable.”

Some leading jurists say this testimony about what Netanyahu was thinking is valuable. Still, Hefetz also said that Netanyahu kept him out of the loop on, for example, regulatory steps related to Bezeq, so he may not have seen the full picture.

Benjamin Netanyahu and his lawyers at the Jerusalem District Court. Credit: Oren Ben Hakoon

A dash of hatred

In the second case, in which Netanyahu is charged with breach of trust for trying to make a deal to secure favorable coverage from Yedioth, Hefetz’s testimony was decidedly uncomfortable for Netanyahu. One of the defense’s main arguments is that Yedioth’s publisher, Arnon Mozes, essentially began extorting the prime minister after Israel Hayom launched. But Hefetz rejected this claim, backing Mozes’ version of events almost completely.

Netanyahu’s hatred of Mozes, Hefetz said, started years before Israel Hayom existed, and Netanyahu was the one who made the threats. And during redirect examination, Hefetz added, “My impression is that the one who started this battle was Netanyahu. It’s all him.”

Even if Netanyahu escapes a bribery conviction in the Bezeq-Walla case, it’s hard to see him avoiding a conviction for the lesser charge of breach of trust, which he faces in all three cases (the third relates to gifts he received from businessman Arnon Milchan).

In this regard, Netanyahu’s lawyers are likely worried by a recent verdict in the case of a former senior police officer, Niso Shaham. The Supreme Court accepted the prosecution’s argument that a critical mass of incidents can justify a breach of trust conviction even if no single incident would merit one. “The accumulation of incidents makes the behavior criminal,” Justice Neal Hendel wrote.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s conviction for fraud and breach of trust over his receipt of cash-filled envelopes from American Jewish businessman Morris Talansky rested on similar grounds. In that case, the Jerusalem District Court wrote that even if none of these gifts constituted a crime individually, they amounted to a crime when taken as a whole. The author of that 2015 verdict was Judge Rivka Friedman-Feldman, who today heads the three-justice bench in Netanyahu’s trial.

During cross-examination, defense lawyers also highlighted the police’s dubious tactics before Hefetz agreed to turn state’s evidence. Most notably, they threatened that failure to cooperate would destroy his family.

At first he ignored these threats, but on February 21, 2018, he was brought into a hallway in the police station and, not by accident, saw a woman with whom he had a very close relationship. The woman had been summoned for questioning and was asked intrusive personal questions that bore no relationship to the investigation.

The next day, Hefetz’s wife appeared in the same hallway and was told by investigators that Hefetz was about to be released, even though they had already asked the court to extend his detention. After that meeting, Hefetz burst into tears and begged the investigators to leave his family alone.

Less than two weeks later, on March 4, Hefetz signed the state’s evidence agreement, following a brief meeting with his wife in the police station parking lot.

Associates of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit said he learned of these dubious tactics only after the fact and would not have approved them had he known beforehand. Still, a superficial inquiry satisfied him that Hefetz did not sign the agreement due to these tactics, and no one in either the police or the prosecution has been called to account for them.

Hefetz himself also denied that these tactics led him to sign the agreement, so they aren’t expected to detract from the weight of the evidence he provided. Still, when you combine this treatment with his very unpleasant detention conditions, this too looks like an “accumulation of incidents.”

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