Nir Hefetz, a key figure in the latest corruption allegations to engulf Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is a former newspaper editor who served as media adviser to the prime minister’s family. Notorious for throwing his weight around when he wasn’t happy with press coverage of his clients, he was known to be especially mindful of the needs of Sara Netanyahu, the prime minister’s image-obsessed wife.
On Tuesday, it was revealed that Hefetz is suspected of offering a former judge the job of Israeli attorney general in 2015 if she agreed to close several pending cases against Sara Netanyahu.
According to the report, first published in Maariv and later partially confirmed by police, the offer was allegedly made to retired district court judge Hila Gerstl through another intermediary, Eli Kamir. A former journalist, Kamir worked as a strategic consultant for various corporations, including Bezeq – the Israeli telecom giant at the center of another corruption scandal involving Hefetz and Netanyahu (and known as Case 4000 by the police).
Shocked by the offer, Gerstl, who was a candidate at the time for attorney general (but did not get the job), reportedly shared the information with her friend Esther Hayut – then a Supreme Court justice and today its president.
Netanyahu categorically denied that such a deal was ever in the offing. “Hefetz never made such a ludicrous offer and was never asked to do so, and we cannot believe he would do such a thing on his own accord,” he said in response to the report.
The cases against Sara Netanyahu that Hefetz allegedly tried to kill involved her suspected misuse of state funds for various household and personal expenses.
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Hefetz, 52, was one of two Netanyahu associates arrested early Sunday in connection with Case 4000, over allegations that Bezeq reaped huge financial benefits for allegedly helping the Netanyahu family obtain favorable coverage on Walla, the popular news site it owns. Police suspect that Shaul Elovitch – the controlling shareholder in Bezeq, who has also been arrested – used his clout to soften stories about the Netanyahus.
Hefetz, who is also known to be close with Elovitch, is suspected of serving as a key intermediary in the dealings between the Netanyahu family and the Walla news site.
A gag order that prohibited publishing Hefetz’s name was lifted at midnight on Tuesday.
Born in Haifa in 1965, Hefetz moved to Herzliya with his family when he was 16. He served in the intelligence branch in the Israel Defense Forces and reached the rank of captain, which is perhaps where he first learned to bark out orders to underlings.
He studied political science and law at Tel Aviv University in the early 1990s, before embarking on his journalism career at a local weekly in the Yedioth Communications group. From there he progressed to other newspapers in Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes’ media empire, eventually landing the position of editor at the daily’s popular weekend magazine.
A profile of Hefetz published by Haaretz in 2001 described a workaholic who was at his desk seven days a week. However, he was known for his allegedly aggressive demeanor with fellow journalists – so much so that when he was considered for the top job at what was then the Israel Broadcasting Authority in 2001, a barrage of disparaging stories started appearing (anonymously) about him on Yedioth’s own website, Ynet.
Haaretz quoted colleagues of Hefetz as saying, “The problem is that the only thing that really interests him is the advancement of Nir Hefetz.” Hefetz defended himself in the same profile, saying, “I did it all with my own two hands, no one gave me anything.”
Hefetz’s association with Netanyahu began in 2009, when he was appointed chief spokesman for the prime minister, then beginning his second stint in office.
Hefetz has said Netanyahu hired him after consulting with Mozes, who was known to be a long-standing admirer of Hefetz (although that may be due to Hefetz’s reported nickname at the newspaper: “Arnon Mozes’ errand boy”).
Hefetz’s time in the Prime Minister’s Office was brief. In 2011, he started working as a media adviser to Nochi Dankner – at the time one of the most powerful tycoons in Israel and the controlling shareholder in the IDB group.
After Dankner purchased Maariv, once Yedioth’s chief competitor, he appointed Hefetz as editor-in-chief. But Hefetz did not last long there, either: About a year after he assumed the position, Maariv all but collapsed and the newspaper was eventually sold in 2012.
According to various exposés published in the Hebrew press after the sale, Dankner used Maariv to promote his business interests and settle scores with his rivals. He allegedly had Hefetz do much of the dirty work for him, according to reports.
Dankner received a two-year prison sentence in December 2016 for securities fraud, money laundering and stock manipulation.
In 2014, Hefetz began working with Netanyahu again, this time as a media adviser for the prime minister’s family; his services were provided through a private consultancy company he established. During the 2015 Knesset election, Hefetz also worked as a campaign strategist for Netanyahu’s Likud party.
In 2016, Haaretz’s business paper, TheMarker, reported that Hefetz had tried to interest Hollywood billionaire Arnon Milchan – currently embroiled in another bribery scandal involving Netanyahu – and press magnate Rupert Murdoch into setting up a new television channel in Israel. However, the initiative never took off.
Hefetz’s name has also been linked to the corruption case involving Netanyahu and Mozes, known as Case 2000. That centers on allegations that Netanyahu promised to help curtail the circulation of Mozes’ main competitor, Israel Hayom – founded and funded by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a key supporter of the prime minister’s – in exchange for more favorable coverage in Yedioth Ahronoth.
Netanyahu is alleged to have suggested to Mozes that Hefetz serve as the point man between them.
Hefetz’s lawyer, Yaron Kostelitz, said this week his client had not been guilty of any wrongdoing. “I am convinced that at the end of the investigation it will emerge that Mr. Hefetz is not a suspect and he will return to his affairs,” he said.