AG to check alleged police wrongdoing in grilling of witness against Netanyahu

Bar Association head calls for immediate inquiry into claims Nir Hefetz was improperly pressured in Case 4000, casting doubt on veracity of his testimony

Nir Hefetz appears in a Tel Aviv court on February 22, 2018. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)
Nir Hefetz appears in a Tel Aviv court on February 22, 2018. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit on Tuesday vowed to look into possible wrongdoing by investigators in the cases involving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after a news report raised questions about police conduct during the questioning of a key state witness, as well as the veracity of his testimony.

The head of the Israel Bar Association called for an immediate and open inquiry into the accusations, saying placing “a gag order upon suspicions without providing the public with an explanation” was “unthinkable.” He was apparently referring to some details of the affair being withheld.

Channel 12 news on Monday shared transcripts of statements by Nir Hefetz, in which he spoke of trouble accurately remembering details of the case, changed his testimony on several occasions and mentioned meetings that apparently did not take place.

Hefetz is a former Netanyahu spokesman and confidant and a witness in Case 4000 — the most severe of the cases facing the premier — in which Netanyahu is suspected of pushing regulatory decisions financially benefiting the controlling shareholder of the Bezeq telecommunications group, in return for ongoing positive news coverage.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaks at a conference in Airport City, outside Tel Aviv, on September 03, 2019 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Hefetz turned state witness after being arrested and questioned over a two-week period, and is believed to have provided prosecutors with key information as an interlocutor between Netanyahu and Bezeq’s Shaul Elovitch.

Channel 12 revealed that Hefetz may have been pressured through illegitimate means to cause him to turn against Netanyahu. It said another person with no ties to Case 4000 was brought in by police and questioned in order to pressure Hefetz to sign an agreement with authorities, and that Hefetz indeed did so following this move by police.

Further details on the person in question could not immediately be disclosed.

On several occasions as Hefetz gave testimony, he commented on his faulty memory and at one point stated: “I’ve gotten confused by what I remember from the questioning and what I actually remember, it’s mixed up.”

At another juncture he noted that “memory isn’t my strong suit. I’m not good with long-term.”

And when Hefetz said an important meeting between himself, Netanyahu and Elovitch took place days before the 2015 national election, it turned out cellular phone triangulation ruled out such a meeting. Hefetz then backtracked and said the meeting must have occurred several months earlier.

Nir Hefetz, then-editor in chief of the Maariv newspaper, attends an Economic Affairs Committee meeting at the Knesset, September 27, 2012. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The report said Hefetz several times backtracked on his previous statements on certain details and amended them when presented with contradictory information.

On Tuesday, Mandelblit said in a statement that “if it is found that illegitimate actions were carried out during the handling of the cases, the issue will be reviewed and dealt with accordingly.”

He added that police investigators had made it absolutely clear to state witnesses “that they are required to state only truth,” and said he felt confident that “the statements given by state witnesses were given freely and willingly.”

Avi Himi, president of the Israel Bar Association, called on Tuesday for an investigation into the claims of wrongdoing and for public disclosure of its results.

“It is unthinkable for an enforcement authority to place a gag order upon suspicions without providing the public with an explanation… such behavior could mortally damage public trust in the justice system,” he said.

On Friday Channel 12 and Channel 13 reported that Mandelblit would be holding discussions this week with the aim of reaching a decision by the end of November on whether to file charges against Netanyahu in three graft probes, of which Case 4000 is the most serious.

(From R-L) Justice Minister Amir Ochana and Chairman of the Israel Bar Association Avi Chimi and Justice Ministry Manager Amy Palmor seen during A Council Meeting of the Israel Bar Association in Nazareth Iliit on July 16, 2019. (Flash90)

In a draft charge sheet issued in February, Mandelblit outlined charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust against the premier in Case 4000, and fraud and breach of trust in two other cases, Case 1000 ad Case 2000.

Criminal charges would not be a legal impediment to Netanyahu’s running for reelection if Israel is forced into another round of elections amid its current political deadlock, but a legal battle would likely ensue were he to be reelected.

According to a Channel 13 report last week, state prosecutors have begun drafting a legal opinion recommending Netanyahu be charged in all three cases, following the completion of the hearing process last month.

Prosecutors believe Mandelblit should keep the original proposed charges intact in all three cases, unconvinced by the defense’s efforts during the hearing to refute the accusations, the report said.

Netanyahu, who denies any wrongdoing, has repeatedly claimed that he is the victim of a witch hunt by the media, the left, police and the state prosecution, designed to oust him from power.

On Friday, Channel 12 reported that Hefetz told investigators Elovitch in 2015 repeatedly pressed for the firing of the Communication Ministry’s director-general at the time, Avi Berger, in order to advance his company’s interests.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on November 3, 2019. (Oded Balilty/Pool/AFP)

Berger was opposed to Bezeq’s purchase of the Yes satellite TV provider from Eurocom Group, which was owned by Elovitch. The deal eventually went ahead and is said to have earned Elovitch hundreds of millions of dollars.

Hefetz told police that Elovitch “pushed [the issue] hard. He had conversations with me about it, too — that Bibi needs to fire [Berger] already… because he’s the one stopping it… he’s the one blocking the Yes deal.”

It was clear Elovitch wanted the message conveyed to Netanyahu, Hefetz said, adding that he often served as an intermediary between the Netanyahu family and Elovitch regarding coverage on the Walla news site, which Elovtich also owned.

Testimonies from the case have indicated that coverage of the Netanyahus on Walla was repeatedly changed and softened following demands by the prime minister’s family.

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