The Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court on Wednesday partially lifted a gag order related to police questioning of a woman about her alleged relationship with Nir Hefetz, a key state’s witness in one of the corruption cases against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Hefetz, a former aide and confidant to Netanyahu, is believed to have provided vital evidence in Case 4000, which involves suspicions the premier used his position to benefit telecom mogul Shaul Elovitch in exchange for positive coverage from Elovitch’s Walla news site. It is considered the most serious of the three graft cases facing Netanyahu, and the only one in which he faces possible bribery charges.
The court allowed the media on Wednesday to publish the fact that the woman in question was asked “invasive questions” about her purported relationship with Hefetz by police investigators in the case. It maintained its ban on publishing the woman’s name, the content of her answers, or the nature of her relationship with Hefetz.
In a Knesset speech on November 6, Justice Minister Amir Ohana alleged that police had used the woman to blackmail Hefetz into testifying against Netanyahu. Standing at the Knesset podium, Ohana said investigators had called in the woman, who has no direct connection to Case 4000, and asked her “invasive and intrusive” questions about her relationship with Hefetz, then engineered an “accidental” meeting between the two at the police station.
When the two met, Ohana said, the investigators told Hefetz, “We know everything and will drop a bomb on your family.”
Ohana then charged that the justice system was “protecting criminals” and allowing “the rot to take over.”
Ohana’s comments effectively broke the gag order imposed on the investigation, as Israel’s basic laws allows the media to publish anything said in the Knesset plenum, irrespective of court orders.
The day after Ohana’s speech, Hefetz lashed the justice minister’s claims, denied he had been pressured, and vowed to seek damages. Through his attorney Ilan Sofer, Hefetz said it was “shameful and disgraceful for a justice minister to run roughshod over the law and scorn an explicit gag order by the courts, from the Knesset podium,” and called Ohana’s comments “a shameful attempt to score political points while seriously harming [Hefetz’s] privacy.” He vowed Ohana’s actions “will not go unanswered.”
Last week, Hefetz’s lawyers sent a letter to Ohana demanding a public apology, said he would be expected to discuss compensation “for the damage caused” to Hefetz, and gave him till the end of this week to respond.
Media outlets have asked the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court to remove the gag order in the case following Ohana’s comments. On Wednesday, the court permitted publication of the fact of the woman’s “invasive questioning,” but nothing more.
Hefetz’s attorney Sofer said in a statement Wednesday that “the court accepted the position that there is a total gag order on publishing any identifying detail and on the content of the testimony, and also [accepted] the position that any violation of the gag order would cause serious harm to Mr. Hefetz and his family.”
At a November 10 court hearing, Hefetz’s lawyers argued against opening the court hearing to the public, saying publicity would increase “threats and pressure on a state’s witness” that they claimed were being directed “by none other than the prime minister himself.”
After the hearing, Hefetz said that his testimony was “the unvarnished truth” and predicted that the court would agree with that assertion should the case against Netanyahu come to trial.
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has vowed to look into Likud’s allegations of wrongdoing by investigators. But he also issued an unprecedented rebuke of Ohana’s claims, saying they were an attempt to “mislead the public” for Netanyahu’s political benefit.
Mandelblit is expected to announce in the coming days whether or not he will press charges against Netanyahu in Case 4000, which includes suspicions of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Netanyahu is also suspected of fraud and breach of trust in two other cases.