A close confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is suspected of offering the position of attorney general to a retired Israeli judge in return for her closing the case into alleged improprieties involving household expenses by the prime minister's wife Sara Netanyahu at their official residence.
Nir Hefetz, a former personal spokesperson for the Netanyahus, offered Hila Gerstl the position of attorney general on the condition that she use her new post to stymie potential legal proceedings against the Netanyahus over their household spending.
Details of Hefetz's involvement were revealed Tuesday morning by the journalist Ben Caspit in Maariv and were confirmed in part by the Israel Police, which stated that Gerstl had testified on the matter – as a witness, not as a suspect.
Gerstl at the time, in 2015, was a leading candidate for the attorney generalship. Hefetz allegedly conveyed the offer to her through an associate of hers, Eli Kamir, a former journalist who went on to be a strategic consultant on behalf of a large number of politicians and businesses.
Gerstl told the police on Monday that she indeed was offered the top post in return for the closing of the case against the prime minister's wife, law enforcement sources told Haaretz. According to the sources, Gerstl said she rejected the offer, but did not explain why she hadn't notified the police or the attorney general of the proposal.
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Haaretz has learned that Gerstl spoke with her colleague Esther Hayut, then a justice on the Supreme Court and currently chief justice, and told her about the offer.
Hayut, who was questioned by police on Tuesday night, told them that Gerstl only told her about the affair some time after the offer was made. A statement released on behalf of Hayut said that when Hayut was told about the affair, Gerstl was no longer nominated for the top post, and the latter did not disclose details on the identity of the those involved.
In any event, Gerstl did meet in 2015 with Kamir. Caspit reported that Gerstl was shocked by the proposed offer. Ultimately, she was not appointed attorney general; former cabinet secretary Avichai Mendelblit received the post.
Bribery and appointments
Mendelblit clarified that he was not offered the deal proffered to Gerstl. Answering a question from Haaretz, the attorney general's office state that it "never was and is not the address for bribery propositions."
Gerstl had been competing for the attorney-generalship against two other candidates: Judge Ofer Grosskopf, now a candidate for supreme court justice; and the candidate who landed the job: Mendelblit.
Following Tuesday's revelations, Haaretz asked Mendelblit if he received a similar proposition to the one reported by Gerstl. Mendelblit said he had not, but refused to answer two additional questions: whether he discussed Gerstl's testimony with her in a professional capacity, and whether he intended on recusing himself in the corruption scandals now that appointments to his position have become central to the case.
On Tuesday Kamir was arrested for alleged corruption and was released to house arrest. He is also a suspected of involvement in the so-called "Case 4000," involving alleged illicit quid-pro-quo between Netanyahu and tycoon Shaul Elovitch, owner of the Bezeq phone company, which owns the news website Walla.
Hefetz had been arrested on Sunday for allegedly accepting bribes and obstructing justice in Case 4000. His remand in custody was extended Tuesday for two more days while the investigation continues. He was also questioned by the police about the Gerstl affair.
On Tuesday, the police stated that a senior public servant had been given an offer to push her appointment to the attorney generalship... "ostensibly in return for a promise on her part concerning a future decision about a certain criminal affair in which the suspects had an interest.”
Former attorney general Yehuda Weinstein told Army Radio Wednesday morning that during the process of appointing his replacement, he wasn't "a good friend to Hila Gertsl, she didn't tell him [on the matter]." He added that he didn't know about the affair until Tuesday morning.
Hefetz allegedly asked Kamir to meet with Gerstl discreetly, making sure they weren't being taped. Kamir told Hefetz that he did not believe anything of the kind should be offered to her, but Hefetz pleaded with him to ask her anyway. Kamir met with Gerstl the same day.
Kamir began out as a sports reporter at Maariv, then after a stint on the legal beat, he moved from journalism into “strategic consulting” and about three years ago, landed a contract with Bezeq for 40,000 shekels a month (about $11,300), a lot for such a job. He was hired to provide personal consulting services to the owner of Bezeq, Shaul Elovitch, and CEO Stella Handler – both of whom were arrested in the Bezeq affair.
Kamir also reportedly has close ties with a number of senior politicians and businessmen, among them former defense ministers Shaul Mofaz and Moshe Ya’alon, as well as the current defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman and with Netanyahu as well. He served as campaign strategy adviser for a number of politicians, worked on Shas’ election campaign in 2013 and for Kulanu's in 2015 and counts ministries, Israel Discount Bank and Noble Energy among his clients.
Netanyahu denied Tuesday the reports about the Gerstl affair and stated, "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.”
Last September, the attorney general announced that Sara Netanyahu would be indicted for fraud and breach of trust for excessive spending on catering at the premier's official residence, while falsely claiming that the household did not employ a cook. Investigators found that in at least 15 different instances, chefs were summoned to prepare meals for Sara Netanyahu's guests and for family members. The bills for those meals were falsified to inflate the number of diners, thus circumventing the maximum price permitted per person invited to dine at the official residence at a meal provided by an outside chef.
The details that came to light on Tuesday seem similar to the so-called "Baron-Hebron affair", in which Shas minister Arye Dery and others allegedly conspired to appoint an attorney general who would clear Dery of criminal charges in exchange for his party's support for the Hebron agreement that Netanyahu concluded with Yasser Arafat in 1997.
The Israel police investigated it at the time and recommended that Netanyahu be tried for fraud and breach of trust. The state attorney overturned their recommendation, saying there was insufficient evidence to ensure a conviction, but she and the attorney general at the time made no secret of their suspicions that Netanyahu was well aware of the conspiracy and played along with it. Israel's Supreme Court decided, not unanimously, to accept their decision not to prosecute Netanyahu, though the minority opinion held that there was ample evidence to convict him.