A key prosecution witness in former Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial began testifying on Monday, one week later than planned, telling the court that the former prime minister was heavily fixated on media coverage of himself.
Nir Hefetz, a former media adviser to Netanyahu and his family, will testify in all three of the corruption cases against the former prime minister. His testimony is therefore expected to continue for quite some time.
Netanyahu arrived in court on Monday and was present for Hefetz's testimony.
According to Hefetz, Netanyahu's meetings with Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of the Bezeq media giant that owns the Walla News site, centered on who the next communications minister would be, as Elovitch sought approval for a merger with the Yes cable company.
Netanyahu, who was communications minister as well as prime minister when the merger was approved, is accused of conferring regulatory benefits on Bezeq in exchange for biased coverage in Walla. Hefetz testified that Elovitch had requested that the prime minister not leave Erdan with a foothold in the Communications Ministry, despite Erdan's request for a two-month transition period after he ended his tenure as communications minister and began working as interior minister.
Hefetz also said that Shaul Elovitch and his wife Iris treated Walla as "a gift" for Netanyahu. He recounted the couple saying: "What, do they not understand that this site is theirs?"
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Hefetz also told the court that Elovitch had asked him to tell Netanyahu that the Bezeq-Walla merger had to be completed before the 2015 election, and gave him a document to pass on to the former prime minister. Netanyahu "took the pages and read to the end," Hefetz said. "He took out a staple, shredded the document and called his secretary and told her to set a meeting with Elovitch."
Hefetz also said that on matters involving media coverage, Netanyahu was "way beyond a control freak" and that his control "was absolute and total, with no exceptions." The breadth of his control was even greater than what is publicly known, Hefetz said, and "the time he devoted to the media was at least as much as security matters."
He further said that former Communications Minister Gilad Erdan was pushed out of the ministry following a consultation by the prime minister with his wife Sara and son Yair. "It wasn't open to negotiations or indecision," he said. "There was a clear family decision that only Netanyahu would be communications minister."
Hefetz’s appearance in the Jerusalem District Court was previously postponed at the request of the defense, which said it needed time to go over new material that might prove relevant to his testimony. The prosecution said it could guarantee that Hefetz wouldn’t be questioned about any of the new material, which came from another prosecution witness, but it couldn’t promise that he wouldn’t mention it of his own initiative.
The new material is from Hadas Klein, an aide to businessman Arnon Milchan, whose previous statements to police are crucial to one of the three cases, involving charges that Netanyahu accepted illicit gifts from tycoons. Last month, Klein contacted the prosecution and said she had new material relevant to the case. Police then spent a few weeks questioning her and Milchan about this material, and according to the prosecution, these interrogations ended only last Monday.
A source involved in the investigation said that in her statement to the police on October 24, Klein said that Milchan and another businessman, James Packer, had given Netanyahu’s wife Sara three bracelets. One, purchased by Packer, was worth $45,000. The jewelry, as well as some handbags, were given at Sara Netanyahu’s request in honor of a family event, Klein added.
Police asked Klein why she didn’t mention this when they initially questioned her about gifts to the Netanyahus from Milchan. She replied that her lawyer at the time – Boaz Ben Zur, who is now one of Netanyahu’s defense attorneys – had told her only to respond to investigators’ questions and not to volunteer information. However, the testimony in the trial to date made her remember this incident, she said, so she contacted the prosecution.
On Sunday, Netanyahu’s defense team asked the attorney general for a third time to open an investigation into leaks to the media of Klein’s new evidence. Prosecutor Liat Ben Ari has denied that the prosecution was responsible, telling the court last week that prosecutors were also shocked by the leaks.