Chief justice gives police testimony over alleged bribe offer by Netanyahu aide

Esther Hayut defends decision not to report ‘vague’ story on alleged proposal by Nir Hefetz to a fellow judge in 2015, says her colleague refused to disclose names

Portrait of the Jerusalem Supreme Court Judge, Esther Hayut, on May 10, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Portrait of the Jerusalem Supreme Court Judge, Esther Hayut, on May 10, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut was summoned by police on Tuesday night to testify on an alleged 2015 bribe offer to a fellow judge by an adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in another extraordinary twist in a fast-moving investigation into the Israeli leader’s associates.

In hauling her in for questioning, police set up an unprecedented situation in which the head of the judiciary was compelled to testify in a case linked to the head of the government.

In a late-night statement from the Supreme Court, Hayut defended her decision not to report the incident to police over two years ago, saying Hila Gerstel’s story was “vague,” and that Gerstel disclosed no information on those involved.

According to reports, Nir Hefetz, the Netanyahus’ former spokesperson, offered to appoint Gerstel as attorney general if she agreed to halt an investigation into the prime minister’s wife Sara.

Maariv journalist Ben Caspit earlier on Tuesday broke the news of the suspected offer conveyed by Hefetz, longtime confidant of the Netanyahu family, to now-retired judge Gerstel. Police confirmed the details without naming those involved.

In the statement, Hayut maintained she only heard about the case from her “dismayed” colleague post-facto, after Avichai Mandelblit was appointed to the post of attorney general.

“She [Gerstel] told her in retrospect and after the candidacy was no longer relevant,” said a statement from the Supreme Court released after Hayut’s testimony.

“Because of the limited details and the vague story that Gerstel had chosen to tell her, the [supreme court] president had no basis for taking any step on her part,” the statement added.

“Gerstel expressed dismay to the [court] president over the incident, but she added that she would not be able to elaborate further and could not tell her who was involved,” according to the court.

Earlier on Tuesday, Hebrew media reports had said Hayut was informed in real time of the alleged 2015 offer by Hefetz.

Nir Hefetz, longtime aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Netanyahu family, arrives for extension of his remand in case 4000 at the Magistrate’s Court in Rishon Letzion, February 18, 2018. (Flash90)

Gerstel was questioned by investigators on Monday, Hadashot news reported, as critics questioned why the retired judge, and Hayut, failed to report the incident to police in 2015.

Netanyahu is not currently suspected of dispatching Hefetz to extend the offer to the judge, Hadashot TV reported.

Attorney General Mandelblit on Tuesday afternoon slammed a suggestion that he may have been offered a similar deal.

Responding to the initial report of an alleged quid pro quo, Meretz chairwoman Zehava Galon raised the possibility that Mandelblit could also be implicated in a similar agreement. “Now we only need to ask what was promised to Mandelblit before he was appointed attorney general by Netanyahu and if it is connected to the slow pace of the investigations [against the prime minister],” Galon wrote on Twitter.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaks at a conference in Jerusalem, February 5, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Calling the allegation that he too had been offered the deal a “disgraceful suggestion,” Mandelblit said it was not even worthy of a response.

“The attorney general has never been and is not today the address for bribery proposals,” the attorney general’s office responded to a query from The Times of Israel.

“Beyond that obvious statement, the question, and the disgraceful suggestion included within it, does not even deserve a response on our behalf,” the brief statement added.

Hefetz and Communications Ministry director Shlomo Filber have been in custody since Sunday in connection with the so-called Case 4000 of suspected corruption involving the Bezeq telecommunications company and possibly Netanyahu himself.

Filber was poised to sign an agreement on Tuesday night to turn state’s witness, in a blow to Netanyahu and a dramatic twist in the case, according to TV reports.

Ombudswoman of the Prosecution, retired Judge Hila Gerstel, attends a Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee meeting in the Israeli parliament, on January 27, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Both Hefetz and Netanyahu refuted the police suspicion.

According to Caspit’s account, Hefetz allegedly requested a discreet meeting with an associate of Gerstel’s, strategic adviser Eli Kamir, and told him, “If you go into a closed room with justice Gerstel and check with her, would she commit to closing the investigation against Sara Netanyahu in exchange for her appointment as attorney general? What would her response be?”

Eli Kamir (Hadashot news screenshot)

Sara Netanyahu is suspected of misusing public funds at the couple’s official residences, as well as using government money to pay for private chefs at family events, a caregiver for her father, and weekend electrical work at the couple’s home in the tony coastal town of Caesarea.

According to the Ynet news website, the offer was made to Gestel after Mandelblit testified before the Public Service Appointments Committee in 2015, vowing that his close relationship with Netanyahu would not affect his legal judgement in any potential proceedings against him.

Mandelblit served as Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary from 2013 to 2016.

In September, Mandelblit formally notified Sara Netanyahu that he intended to indict her for fraud for allegedly diverting some NIS 360,000 ($102,000) of public funds for her own use with the specific intention of avoiding payment of personal expenses.

Hefetz, who served as the prime minister’s media adviser from 2014 to 2017, denied the allegations, telling his investigators, “It never happened, I deny any attempted bribery involving Gerstel,” Hadashot TV news reported. He also denied he was in talks to turn state witness.

Netanyahu issued a scathing response to the reported deal, denying any connection to Hefetz’s alleged offer.

“Nir Hefetz never made this absurd offer in front of the prime minister and his wife,” said Netanyahu’s office. “He was never asked to make such an offer, and we cannot believe Hefetz even considered such a thing. Soon the Netanyahu couple will be also blamed for the [1933] assassination of [Zionist leader Haim] Arlosoroff.”

Gerstel shared details of the offer with Hayut shortly after receiving it, Haaretz reported. Gerstel and Hayut, who has since been appointed president of the Supreme Court, are said to be close friends.

Hefetz was named early Tuesday as one of several senior officials and former officials arrested in connection with the Bezeq investigation, Case 4000, which primarily revolves around suspicions that Netanyahu enacted policies potentially worth hundreds of millions of shekels to Shaul Elovitch, the owner of the Walla news website and the controlling shareholder of Bezeq, Israel’s largest telecom company, in exchange for positive coverage on Walla.

Also among those arrested and ordered held for five days were Elovitch, his wife, Iris; and his son Or; along with Filber; Bezeq CEO Stella Handler; and a senior Bezeq executive, Amikam Shorer.

Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu are also expected to be questioned in the Case 4000 probe, reportedly as suspects.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and his wife Sara, center-right, react during a gathering by Likud party members and activists to show support for them as they face corruption investigations, held at the Tel Aviv Convention Center, August 9, 2017. (AFP/Jack GUEZ)

Last week, police recommended that Netanyahu be indicted for fraud, breach of trust and bribery in two other cases.

In Case 1000, Netanyahu and his wife are alleged to have received illicit gifts from billionaire benefactors, most notably the Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, totaling NIS 1 million ($282,000). In return, Netanyahu is alleged by police to have intervened on Milchan’s behalf in matters relating to legislation, business dealings, and visa arrangements.

Case 2000 involves a suspected illicit quid-pro-quo deal between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes that would have seen the prime minister weaken a rival daily, the Sheldon Adelson-backed Israel Hayom, in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.

The prime minister has also been linked indirectly to Case 3000, a large investigation into suspected corruption surrounding a multi-billion-shekel purchase of naval vessels and submarines from a German shipbuilder. While Netanyahu has not been named as a suspect, close associates of his, including two personal aides, have been arrested or questioned.

Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing in all the cases.

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