The Walla news site was "totally accommodating" to the requests of the Netanyahu family, and that the Likud headquarters had control over the items at the site, Nir Hefetz, a former adviser turned state's evidence in Benjamin Netanyahu's corruption trial, testified on Wednesday.
Walla was owned by media mogul Shaul Elovitch, who allegedly engaged in a quid pro quo with Netanyahu. Hefetz told the Jerusalem District Court that he sent Walla stories he thought would not be carried by other media outlets.
In a message he showed during the hearing, Hefetz wrote to Walla CEO at the time, Ilan Yeshua, asking him to publish an article "that is very important to my friend [Netanyahu]", around the time a report was expected to be published detailing misconduct toward employees in the prime minister's residence.
On Tuesday, Hefetz also testified that the former prime minister’s wife Sara Netanyahu and son Yair asked him to make sure that media mogul Shaul Elovitch and his wife Iris were deleting any correspondence with them.
Elovitch was a controlling shareholder of telecom giant Bezeq, which owned Walla. Netanyahu was serving as communications minister at the time and, according to the indictment against him, led regulatory steps directly tied to Elovitch’s businesses and interests that yielded the tycoon some $500 million, in exchange for positive news coverage of the Netanyahu family. Netanyahu is on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Hefetz said Sara and Yair contacted him after it was reported that a covert investigation connected to Netanyahu was taking place. “I was asked by Sara Netanyahu to come to the official [prime minister’s] residence on Balfour Street,” he said.
“She and Yair were waiting for me. They were alarmed, in a panic … Yair Netanyahu was trembling. They asked me to go to the Elovitch residence and see with my own eyes that Iris and Shaul Elovitch were deleting all their correspondence with them. There was no sign of Benjamin Netanyahu, I don’t remember if he was at the residence.”
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Hefetz said that after the covert investigation was disclosed, he turned to the Netanyahu family’s lawyers, Amit Haddad and Yossi Cohen. According to Hefetz, Haddad assessed that it was highly likely that the investigation was related to the relations between Elovitch and Netanyahu.
“Cohen took out a notepad. It had a list he’d composed the previous evening together with [Benjamin] Netanyahu, estimating which people could be involved in the investigation,” testified Hefetz. “Heading the list was Elovitch, followed by Australian businessman James Packer. Milchan was also high on that list. There were 10-15 names on that list.”
Hefetz said he was alarmed. “I made a big mistake which I regret, and I take full responsibility for it. I initiated a conversation with Elovitch. I asked to come to his house after dark. He knew why I was coming.” Hefetz, who started crying at this stage of his testimony, said: “I find it hard to talk, that mistake changed my life. We talked about deleting the correspondence and Elovitch said it wouldn’t help since it could be reconstructed.
He said we should get rid of [the cellphones]. He told me to get rid of my cellphone. After a few days I bought a new one, but I kept the old one since I had a lot of information on it.” He said that Netanyahu didn’t know that he’d gone to Elovitch that evening. “I realized I’d crossed a line. I did something that should not have been done, but there was no going back,” he added.
A major part of the second day of Hefetz’s testimony dealt with how Yair and Sara Netanyahu linked their requests for coverage on the Walla website with regulatory favors for Bezeq. Defense attorneys objected to this line of questioning, arguing that one could not conclude from it that Benjamin Netanyahu was aware of or interested in such linkage. They also stressed that Yair and Sara Netanyahu were neither witnesses nor the accused in these cases.
Prosecutor Amir Tabenkin explained: “Netanyahu’s son and wife were very involved in the demands for positive coverage at Walla. We will argue that the fact that people close to Netanyahu understood the linkage between media coverage and regulatory issues reflects on the question of whether Netanyahu did not understand that there was such linkage.”
Tabenkin asked Hefetz to give details of Sara Netanyahu’s requests to deliver messages associated with regulatory issues. Hefetz said that “there was one instance where she sent me to meet Shlomo Filber [the director general of the Communications Ministry appointed by Netanyahu] and tell him to shut the regulatory faucet – these are my words – to Elovitch and the Bezeq group.”
According to Hefetz, he told her to tell this to her husband. “She said she’d update Netanyahu and asked that I go talk to Filber,” Hefetz said. “This was a very rare case in which I complied without going through Benjamin Netanyahu and without telling him it was done. I stressed to Filber that this was coming from Sara, not Benjamin Netanyahu.”
In reply to a question about whether Sara had asked him to give Shaul and Iris Elovitch any messages, Hefetz said that at some point Netanyahu and his wife thought that Elovitch wasn’t “delivering the goods.” He said that “Sara Netanyahu wanted to send them a message that the Netanyahu family was breaking off all ties with the Elovitch family.”
Regarding the involvement of Yair Netanyahu in the requests for coverage on Walla, Hefetz testified: “His argument was that his father was giving so much, and people were trying to con him, that he wasn’t really getting positive coverage.” He said that this argument was unique to Yair. “I sometimes argued the opposite and an argument ensued. Yair said that Walla was getting something from them but not reciprocating, and I said that Elovitch was going out of his way for us [them].”
Hefetz described a meeting with Netanyahu when Yair entered the study, waving an item from Walla and saying, “this is typical, after all you’ve done for Elovitch, look what they’re publishing.” “He came in because I was there, it was an act of defiance against me,” Hefetz said. “I argued that they [Elovitch and Walla] were really trying.” Tabenkin asked Hefetz how Netanyahu responded, and Hefetz replied: “He remained silent. He didn’t confirm it or say anything else to Yair.”
Another argument took place around a comment by Netanyahu’s lawyer Boaz Ben Zur, who remarked to Elovitch, who was leaving the court, “take your recording device with you.” Prosecutor Liat Ben-Ari sharply criticized this remark. “The conduct of my colleagues, I won’t define it, is undignified.
What they’re doing and the way they attack the prosecution, it’s something which I, who have been a lawyer for quite some time, have never seen before, such as when a lawyer tells a witness to take his recording device with him, and when my colleague says that we are acting illegally and disrupting court procedures.”
Ben Zur responded: “Their soul is shocked by the words ‘take your recording device’ while they used illegitimate means in their investigation.” During this argument, with the judges commenting on the numerous objections raised by the defense, Elovitch’s lawyer Jacques Chen left the courtroom for a few minutes.
When Hefetz returned to the courtroom, he asked the judges to prevent insulting comments directed at him. “I’m doing the best I can to serve the court in uncovering the truth. I don’t see myself as having an agenda or taking sides,” he said. “I heard that while I was outside, offensive remarks were made about me. It’s obvious that I’ll get these in the counter-examination, but hitting below the belt is unnecessary and doesn’t add anything. I have feelings too.”
Hefetz added that Netanyahu wanted total control over anything related to the media in issues that were important to him. “There was total intervention, except for a small and defined nucleus of autonomous issues that were under the control of Sara Netanyahu, relating to positive exposure to her activities,” he said.
Tabenkin asked if there were requests by the Netanyahus that he personally delivered to Elovitch. Hefetz replied: “Yes, many times, mainly on weekends when he was home a lot. I’d get constant phone calls about topics related to the family. He would initiate the conversation but the family heard me, since I was on speakerphone.”
Regarding coverage connected to Meni Naftali, the caretaker of the prime minister’s residence who won a civil court case against the Netanyahus, Heftez said that Netanyahu imposed a total taboo: “You couldn’t breathe before he approved any item.” Hefetz described how Elovitch and the Walla CEO at the time, Ilan Yeshua, asked him to tell Netanyahu that the news website had published stories Netanyahu would like, and that he had done so.
Hefetz also said that Shaul and Iris Elovitch would not have appointed a senior editor without the approval of the Netanyahu couple. He testified that in 2016, the Netanyahu family foiled the appointment of Eran Tiefenbrunn, who was then working for the Yedioth Ahronoth group, as the editor of Walla.
He said that Sara Netanyahu made this conditional on his publishing a column against Arnon Mozes, the publisher of Yedioth Ahronoth, “so that he’d have no way back, so that he’d burn his bridges … She posed this condition in the presence of Netanyahu, in his office at Balfour Street.”