Defying gag order, justice minister says cops extorted state witness in PM probe

Slamming Netanyahu corruption investigation, Amir Ohana tells Knesset that police threatened to publicize Nir Hefetz’s alleged affair and ‘drop a bomb on your family’

Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.

Justice Minister Amir Ohana delivers a statement to the press, at the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem, on October 29, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Justice Minister Amir Ohana delivers a statement to the press, at the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem, on October 29, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In an apparent violation of a court-imposed gag order, Justice Minister Amir Ohana on Wednesday took to the podium in the Knesset plenum to accuse police investigators of pressuring a key suspect in one of the criminal cases against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Ohana alleged that police had threatened Nir Hefetz, a key state’s witness in corruption probes against the premier, with hints they had evidence of an extramarital affair in order to get him to cooperate. The claims about the investigators’ conduct were first reported Tuesday by Channel 12 television news, which raised questions about Hefetz’s questioning in Case 4000, the most serious of the cases against the prime minister — but details could not be reported by the outlet due to the gag order on the case.

Those details became permissible for reporting when Ohana made his comments in the Knesset Wednesday, as Israel’s Basic Law: The Knesset stipulates that all Knesset plenum debates must be open to the public and their content permitted for publication.

Opposition MKs accused Ohana of using his parliamentary immunity to leak details of the investigation as part of Netanyahu’s ongoing campaign to undermine the probe. Netanyahu has insisted he is innocent in all three criminal cases against him.

Standing before the Knesset on Wednesday, Ohana described how investigators called in for questioning a woman who was not directly connected to Case 4000, asked her “invasive and intrusive” questions about her relationship with Hefetz, then engineered an “accidental” meeting between the woman and Hefetz in the hallway.

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)

When the two met, investigators allegedly told Hefetz, according to Ohana, that “we know everything and will drop a bomb on your family.”

Ohana continued: “Then Nir surrendered, signed a state’s witness agreement and gave police his version,” Ohana said. “The version was checked and found to be false. He admits that, remembers and gives another version that is also found to be false.”

According to Ohana, who attributed his information to “various reports,” Hefetz was then taken out of the investigation room for an unknown period of time, had an undocumented discussion with one of the investigators “and then came back and gave an accurate version, tailored and fitting, detail to detail, with the information held by investigators.”

Amid a chorus of criticism over Ohana’s apparent violation of the gag order, the justice minister defended his speech, saying in a statement afterward that “I am referring only to what has already been published, as though in the age of Facebook and Twitter there is any meaning to a gag order.”

MK Yael German of the Blue and White party blasted Ohana in the plenum, saying, “You did something unacceptable. You used your immunity to deliver your boss’s talking points.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a joint press conference with US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin (not pictured) in Jerusalem October 28, 2019. (Ronen Zvulun/Pool/AFP)

Blue and White MK Yoav Segalovich, a former head of the Israel Police’s Lahav 433 anti-corruption unit that conducted the investigations into Netanyahu, filed a formal request with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein to commission a temporary ethics committee in the Knesset to discuss Ohana’s actions.

“This is the only way possible to discuss this serious case,” Segalovich wrote to Edelstein. “The behavior of elected officials, especially at a time when Knesset committees are largely inactive, requires all of us at least to pay close attention to our own behavior, and certainly to the law.”

Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg slammed Ohana, saying his pretense of defending the rights of suspects like Netanyahu was undermined by his willingness to hurt the other witnesses in full public view.

“The justice minister chose to break a gag order and revealed private details under the guise of protecting the rights of those under investigation, and he didn’t even see the irony in it,” she tweeted, adding, “The cat is out of the bag: The rights of suspects and all other legal authorities are only interesting when they serve his master Netanyahu.”

A statement on behalf of Ohana denied that the minister had violated a gag order or provided any information that is not already public knowledge.

“The minister did not use his parliamentary immunity in order to reveal what is under a gag order,” the statement said. “The ministry only repeated things that have already been published, and not anything new, because he doesn’t have any new information from the investigation’s materials, which have not been handed to him.”

Former Prime Minister’s Office manager Nir Hefetz, (center) Israeli media tycoon, Shaul Elovitch (left back) and Eli Kamir (right back), seen at the courtroom for the extension of their remand in Case 4000, at the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court, February 26, 2018. (Flash90)

The detailed claims made by Ohana about the investigation were not published beforehand.

Ohana later claimed he did not know what information was covered under the gag order.

“I don’t know what details are forbidden for publication, because I don’t have the gag order — I’m not a media outlet,” he tweeted. “The sections of the investigation materials forbidden for publication also aren’t available to me — I’m not an investigative body.”

On Tuesday, Channel 12 shared transcripts of interviews with Hefetz in which he seems to be threatened by investigators who say they they will turn his life upside down and have the ability to take his assets.

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 benefiting the controlling shareholder of the Bezeq telecommunications group, Shaul Elovitch, in return for ongoing positive news coverage.

Shaul Elovitch arrives at the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court for a remand hearing in Case 4000, February 26, 2018. (Flash90)

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

Channel 12 news on Monday shared other transcripts of statements Hefetz gave, 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.

On Tuesday, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit vowed to look into possible wrongdoing by investigators and the head of the Israel Bar Association called for an immediate and open inquiry into the accusations.

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.”

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaks at a Justice Ministry conference in Tel Aviv, November 4, 2019. (Flash90)

On Friday, both channels 12 and 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.

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, dubbed by police 1000 and 2000.

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.

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