Eight-year-old recordings publicized by Israel's Channel 2 News on Sunday reveal "some very big secrets" related to gifts allegedly delivered to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara Netanyahu, at their residences, and other possible improprieties.
The 2010 conversation taped between Nir Hefetz, the prime minister's former adviser-turned-state's witness, and the Prime Minister's Office legal adviser at the time mentions the Netanyahus' high household expenses, suitcases full of dirty laundry dragged on official trips abroad, requests for gifts from hotel managers and attempts to charge the state budget for landscaping work at the couple's private home in Caesarea.
“I knew there were many cases of gifts arriving directly to Balfour [Street in Jerusalem, the Prime Minister's Residence]. There are some very big secrets there about money,” said Hefetz, the premier's chief spokesman at the time, according to the transcript of a conversation he had with legal adviser Shlomit Barnea Fargo, as reported by Channel 2 journalist Guy Peleg.
In March, embroiled in several major graft investigations focusing on Netanyahu, Hefetz turned state's evidence in what is dubbed Case 4000, involving the Bezeq telecom giant and the Walla news site. He allegedly liaised between the Netanyahus and Bezeq-owned Walla, arranging for them to receive flattering coverage.
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As part of Case 1270, Hefetz is suspected in 2015 of offering the post of attorney general to a retired Israeli judge in return for her closing the case into alleged improprieties related to household expenses by Sara Netanyahu at their official residence. In return for his testimony against the prime minister and turning state's evidence, however, Hefetz is not expected to stand trial in those and other cases.
In the newly released recording, Hefetz's conversation with Barnea Fargo touched among other things on alleged improprieties at the Netanyahus' residences – and further afield:
Barnea Fargo: I want to roll the responsibility away from myself. Let Yehuda [former Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein] say 'Caesarea should be treated the same as Balfour.' Let him take responsibility. It’s not smart for us to accept a request; we will refuse it and he will say yes ... I want to proceed according to his instructions. He’s the attorney general.
Hefetz: Have you told this to Yehuda?
Barnea Fargo: I’ve also told Natan [Eshel, Netanyahu's chief of staff]. I want the attorney general to direct me how to operate, for Yehuda to say we handle Caesarea the same as Balfour. Great, then it will all be very simple. What’s this double game about? Why should I confront the prime minister [as per Weinstein's suggestion]? ... I’ve already been at the [Israel Police] fraud unit, for your information, I was there for the gifts story.
Hefetz: During his previous term?
Barnea Fargo: Yes. I testified there. I straightened it all out with [Netanyahu confident and attorney] David Shimron when they went in.
Hefetz: I want to say something else. In the end the Caesarea story will definitely reach the fraud squad, therefore you must know that you will be at the fraud unit, and you must say things you can stand behind. I’m telling you, you should keep all the paperwork and everything you’re working with.
In another part of the recording, the two related to a demand to upgrade the landscaping at the prime minister’s residence in Caesarea.
Barnea Fargo: They [the Netanyahus] want to fix up the yard (in Caesarea) according to an architectural plan they’ve drawn up for themselves. So we say yes, right?
Hefetz: Has anything like this ever been done before?
Barnea Fargo: Yes.
Hefetz: What did they want to do, redesign the yard?
Barnea Fargo: They’re designing the yard, there are plans.
Hefetz: Is the Prime Minister’s Office paying for it?
Barnea Fargo: There are virtual plans; they want the office to pay for it. They said there is damage as a result of security work. We say okay. In places where security has hurt something we will restore the situation to what it was, but let’s take a reasonable look at what has to be restored. For example, they want a tree to hide a post, or to raise the wall – but it should all be done logically. The soil has to be worked on, then the plants and the vines. Certain supports are needed and we need all sorts of filler, and there’s a virtual model of how the yard will look. Why should we be involved?
Hefetz: How much money was approved for it?
Barnea Fargo: I don’t remember.
Hefetz: I think the request was for hundreds of thousands.
Barnea Fargo: Tens of thousands.
Hefetz: Why the hell do we need all this piggishness?
Elsewhere in the tape revealed on Sunday, Hefetz and Barnea Fargo discuss the handling of the Netanyahus' expense accounts for their trips abroad.
Hefetz: I think that in the bills for the hotels abroad she [Sara] does all kinds of maneuvering to hide all sorts of expenses. Edna [Halbani, the trips coordinator] told me that on every trip at least four or five suitcases come filled with laundry for dry cleaning, and I’m telling you that journalists have asked me about it and I've checked the bills.
Barnea Fargo: There are none.
Hefetz: Nothing appears in the bills, they somehow hide it, among ....
Barnea Fargo: How does the information not get out?
Hefetz: Because I tell the journalists that I checked the bills and checked with the Foreign Ministry since the bills must pass through them, and they tell me that the extras are every very small. But [it can be said] with certainty that there are four or five suitcases full of dry cleaning on every trip.
Barnea Fargo: Are they allowed to bring along suitcases in order to send [clothes to the] laundry?
Hefetz: They’re permitted to use laundry services abroad.
Barnea Fargo: But it’s a misuse of public money, to bring laundry they’re not using there – just to bring it to be cleaned.
Hefetz: Listen, on one of the trips Gil Shefer [the prime minister's bureau chief] told me, "There were eight suitcases of dry cleaning." Now get this: There’s a budget for dry cleaning at the laundromat which isn’t really limited. According to what Shefer says, she simply loves the smell.
Elsewhere in the recording, the two discuss the Netanyahus' trip to New Orleans in November, 2010.
Hefetz: Do you know what Edna told me once?
Barnea Fargo: Nu?
Hefetz: That Natan [Eshel] sent her in New Orleans to a hotel to tell the managers there that Sara has a birthday and she would be very happy if they gave her a gift. But what’s the deal? They tried to steer them toward giving her creams, cosmetics. Natan told the hotel manager: "Don’t bring her flowers, she’s allergic to flowers." He said no chocolates, too, because she doesn’t eat them. And they said, so what can we give? And they told them that she likes creams. She received a giant basket of creams from the hotel, Edna told me proudly.
Barnea Fargo: You know that’s a forbidden gift.
Barnea Fargo: Of course.
In another part of their conversation, Fargo-Barnea is heard saying: “I feel as though there are problems that go beyond those we have generally seen. I spoke to Yehuda [Weinstein] and I told him. He asked, "What does that mean? Go to the prime minister and talk to him." I replied: Yehuda, you don’t get where I’m at. If I go to the prime minister, the next day I will no longer be at the office. He is very suspicious. He isn't willing to listen to such things. [Weinstein] says: “So what are you doing to do?" I said look, in general, I prevent these things, we have worked according to protocol.