The man who will take the witness stand in Jerusalem’s District Court on Tuesday is a refined embodiment of the Israeli power structure. Nir Hefetz was once the right-hand man of the country’s three dominant alpha males: former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes and one-time tycoon Nochi Dankner.
There’s no better indicator of the judgment and moral compass of the men who presided over the nation’s government, media and economy.
Until his arrest in February 2018, nothing seemed to stand in Hefetz’s way. Businesspeople hired him for his services as a strategic consultant, ministers’ doors were open to him and he met leaders and aristocrats.
When Shaul Elovitch’s name came up, Hefetz said he aspired to forge relations with Bezeq’s controlling shareholder like those he had “with Nochi Dankner, [wealthy businessman] Idan Ofer and other senior figures in the economy.”
His diary listed dinner with Gilad Erdan, coffee with Miri Regev, a visit to Yuli Edelstein’s home, meetings with Police Commander Bentzi Sau, Black Cube founder Dan Zorella and his client Eddie Abittan, a key figure behind an extensive fraud scheme in France who fled to Israel and was sentenced to prison in absentia.
Over years of mingling with the wealthy and powerful, Hefetz also adopted their characteristic paranoia. He deleted sensitive text messages, was careful to enter meetings without his phone, and recorded conversations.
When searching his home, police found recorded conversations with Netanyahu’s family members, Naftali Bennett, Yuval Diskin (at the time head of the Shin Bet security service), Effi Naveh (then the Israel Bar Association president) and businessman Jacky Ben-Zaken and Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan.
Hefetz mediated between Milchan and businessman Doron Schuster, who wanted to buy the producer’s shares in Channel 10 News. A few years later, after running into debt, Schuster was murdered on his doorstep. Hefetz said in his police interviews that the recordings were a sort of insurance policy for him.
Even when he held key media positions, Hefetz wasn’t driven by a sense of calling. He didn’t want to criticize those in power but to join them, serve them, make a living off them. He began his journalistic career in Mozes’ media empire as a reporter for a local periodical and rose in the ranks of the Yedioth Ahronoth group over two decades.
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He knew the rules of the game well. “This group is totally controlled by its publisher,” he said in his testimony. “On [Arnon’s father] Noah Mozes Street there’s a gate you enter and it closes very slowly ... once you’ve passed the gate, you’re in a place where there’s a codex with one sentence: what Noni wants,” He said, referring to Arnon by his nickname. Hefetz was very lenient with Mozes and very aggressive with his subordinates.
After the 2009 election Hefetz leapt from the newspaper into the halls of power. Netanyahu, who had been elected prime minister for a second time, asked him to head the Public Diplomacy Department. Hefetz made sure to receive a green light from his patron Mozes, and demanded a promise for a future public position – an ambassador in London, chairman of the state lottery or director of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.
The position gave Hefetz a new point of view on Netanyahu’s relations with the media. “I had the vantage point from both sides,” he said. “When Yedioth Ahronoth, which can move processes besides reporting them, wants, then the prime minister simply cannot work. He’s neutralized ... the work on state affairs stops.”
He grew very close to Sara Netanyahu. The prime minister himself suspected Hefetz was a double agent. “They kept telling Netanayhu I was Noni’s Trojan horse,” Hefetz testified.
The suspiciousness toward Hefetz passes through Netanyahu’s corruption cases. “The man is dangerous,” Elovitch told his son Or about him. “Drunk with power,” added Iris Elovitch. “An enemy,” former Walla News CEO Ilan Yeshua called him. Shlomo Flber, who ran Likud’s campaign in 2015 alongside Hefetz, said: “After the victory Nir ... went all over the country saying the victory was his, hurting the group’s sense of solidarity and friendship.”
Hefetz’s next stop was one of the most rotten media initiatives in Israel’s history: Dankner’s ownership of Maariv. From Dankner’s “special advisor” he became the newspaper’s editor-in-chief and used the position to settle scores with the tycoon’s rivals and give valuable perks to politicians and regulators.
In Hefetz’s house police detectives found a recording of a discussion summary of “Nochi Dankner’s demands to publish an exposé on [lawyer and head of Movement for Quality Government in Israel] Eliad Shraga.” He harnessed Maariv to an all-out war against Shraga, who fought against economic centralization. Meanwhile, Maariv tried to besmirch the leaders of the social protests gripping the country, which threatened the patron’s status.
One of Hefetz and Dankner’s beneficiaries in those dark days was Netanyahu. An article written by Kalman Liebskind that harshly criticized Netanyahu was spiked. It wasn’t the only one.
Dankner and Maariv collapsed, and Hefetz became an independent strategic advisor. In 2014 he got a call from Dr. Zvi Berkowitz, the prime minister’s personal physician and one of the closest people to the family. The Netanyahus pleaded with him to be their media consultant again. Their deep distress must have persuaded him to work for them free of charge.
On his return to the Balfour residence Hefetz discovered that in his absence a new kid had arrived on the block – Elovitch. Netanyahu asked Hefetz to liaise between himself and the tycoon. This is how Hefetz became part of the Bezeq-Walla bribery case against Netanyahu.
He was the one who handled most of the requests to slant the coverage in Walla. “Since November 2014 a large quantity of irregular requests came from the prime minister’s direction to Elovitch,” he testified.
As the ties between them strengthened, Hefetz saw how eager Elovitch was to please Netanyahu. “It was clear to me that the relationship with Walla was unique and that in fact they were at our beck and call,” he testified. “[Elovitch] would mention a name of one candidate or another for Walla editor and ask me if Netanyahu would accept it.”
Elovitch’s motivation was also clear to Hefetz: “I understood perfectly that the reason Elovitch gave an order to be so cooperative with Netanyahu is because he had an economic interest to do so.”
From time to time Hefetz met Elovitch in private. On a number of occasions the latter asked him to pass messages about Bezeq on to Netanyahu. “It always sounded like a lament,” Hefetz said. “In plain words, he was always whining.”
In one of the meetings, at Elovitch’s house, the host appeared agitated. “I thought I’d have to call an ambulance for him,” Hefetz said. Elovitch asked Hefetz to organize an urgent meeting with the prime minister, in a bid to sort out an irksome regulatory tangle. Hefetz did as he was asked. “I escorted Shaul to the prime minister’s work room,” he said. “When we entered I drew the curtains. Shaul seemed very, very tense.”
Hefetz assumed Netanyahu wouldn’t act right away, but would hold Elovitch “hostage” until after the 2015 election. He was right. Elovitch received the regulatory aid he needed – the authorization for the Bezeq-Yes merger – three months after Netanyahu was elected prime minister for the fourth time.
Hefetz said he and Netanyahu thought of Walla’s influence as “zero-to-minimal” on regular days, but “huge” ahead of elections.
Yair Netanyahu, the prime minister’s son whom Hefetz called a “mega-kook,” didn’t make that distinction. He developed an obsession with the site, and passed it on to his father.
“Yair understood that Walla was in fact in his parents’ hands,” Hefetz said, and described the son’s reaction to reports that weren’t favorable to Netanyahu. “Twice or three times ... he stormed into the work room, he always stormed in, waving the item in his hand, laying it defiantly on the table in front of his father and said, ‘Look, after everything you’ve done for Elovitch.’”
In December 2016 it was reported that a covert investigation against Netanyahu was about to come to light. Hefetz became hysterical. He went to Elovitch’s villa in north Tel Aviv the next day, where the two agreed to destroy their phones. “Elovitch was already terrified over this issue,” Hefetz said.
The next guest in the Elovitch villa was Walla CEO Yeshua, who was also told to destroy his phone. Yeshua was shocked. The next day he told this to his lawyer and put an end to the censorship in Walla.
Netanyahu’s wife Sara felt it, and complained that the Elovitches weren’t “delivering the goods.” She sent Hefetz to a secret meeting with Communication Ministry Director General Shlomo Filber to tell him “not to help Shaul” because “they’re no longer friends. We’re mad at them.” These meetings were held in the evening under Filber’s house, after the two men put their phones in a plant pot and talked at a distance, like criminal underworld figures.
As Haaretz reported last week, Hefetz intends to sue the state for tricks the investigators played on him, but says they are not related to his decision to cross the lines. He says that when he learned that Filber turned state’s evidence, he was afraid Elovitch would follow suit and incriminate him.
The defendants’ attorneys will try to vilify Hefetz and undermine his credibility. The question hovering in the courtroom during the cross examination will be: If Hefetz is such a dubious character, why did the Netanyahus use his services for so many years? “I know him as a professional ... an honest man,” Netanyahu said about Hefetz in his interrogation in early 2018.
At his next meeting with the police, after Hefetz agreed to turn state’s evidence, Netanyahu sounded different. “What a liar, what a liar,” he muttered angrily when he heard some of Hefetz’s testimony. He demanded that the investigators look into Hefetz’s credibility.
“You didn’t look into it and let him into your innermost secrets,” one of the investigators retorted. “It’s possible that this man deceived us big time,” Netanyahu replied.