A key state’s witness in Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial testified Tuesday that the former prime minister actively pushed for the establishment of a free tabloid in order to blunt Israel’s biggest-selling newspaper, which he considered hostile to him.
Nir Hefetz, a former Netanyahu confidant, told the Jerusalem District Court that the ex-premier helped enlist the late Jewish-American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson to set up Israel Hayom.
“Benjamin Netanyahu was involved in recruiting Sheldon Adelson to establish a paper that would take down Yedioth Ahronoth,” Hefetz said from the stand. “Netanyahu’s claims that [Yedioth publisher Arnon] Mozes was exploiting him are hypocrisy.”
Hefetz is the state’s key witness in the trial against Netanyahu, who faces charges in three separate graft cases. In the so-called Case 2000, he is accused of attempting to make a deal with Mozes for softer coverage of him in Yedioth, exchange for legislation to curb Israel Hayom’s reach. Mozes also faces charges in the case.
Israel Hayom, a right-wing newspaper widely considered to be a mouthpiece for Netanyahu, started operating in 2007 under Adelson, who died earlier this year. It quickly overtook Yedioth Ahronoth in circulation, thanks to its aggressive dissemination and free distribution.
Hefetz told the court there were times when Netanyahu demanded that Israel Hayom go after Mozes.
“I was witness to conversations in which Netanyahu demanded that Israel Hayom go full force after [Arnon] Mozes personally,” Hefetz said under cross-examination.
He alleged Netanyahu threatened Mozes by saying that he had “personal information” about him, but was never privy to what information the former prime minister supposedly had.
Hefetz also recalled being told by Natan Eshel, once the bureau chief at the Prime Minister’s Office, that he had been dispatched by Netanyahu to warn Mozes ahead of Israel Hayom’s establishment.
“He warned him that if [Yedioth] doesn’t stop being a hostile newspaper toward Netanyahu, this thing owned by Sheldon will be set up and eliminate Yedioth,” Hefetz testified.
According to Hefetz, Eshel warned Mozes that Israel Hayom would begin printing “if this newspaper doesn’t get in line.”
He said Adelson would also make threats against Mozes, including personal ones.
“The personal threats were nonsense. The real threat was to smash the Yedioth Ahronoth group, to bring it down,” Hefetz said of Netanyahu’s alleged comments.
He also said there was no economic logic in founding Israel Hayom and that “it was likely established for an ideological reason.”
“This newspaper loses tens of millions a year in a best-case scenario, and it is given out free to unequivocally destroy what Arnon Moses sees not only as his life’s work, but almost as his entire being,” Hefetz said.
Regarding Yedioth, Hefetz argued the newspaper had no clear agenda beyond maintaining as large a readership as possible.
During questioning by Mozes’s defense attorney, Hefetz said the Yedioth publisher never asked him to relay messages to Netanyahu, and that it was the former premier who initiated contacts.
“[Mozes] told me that he doesn’t believe a word of [Netanyahu’s],” he said.
The cross-examination of Hefetz was expected to wrap up on Wednesday.
During Monday testimony, Hefetz detailed the animosity between Netanyahu and Mozes, saying the former premier viewed the Yedioth publisher as “his true opposition.”
Netanyahu faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in Case 1000 and in Case 2000, and charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in Case 4000.
In Case 4000, the most serious against the former premier, he is alleged to have worked to illicitly and lucratively benefit the business interests of controlling shareholder of the Bezeq media company Shaul Elovitch in exchange for positive coverage on the Walla news site owned by Elovitch.
In Case 1000, he is accused of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of gifts from two billionaires — Hollywood-based Israeli movie mogul Arnon Milchan and Australian magnate James Packer.
Netanyahu denies all allegations against him, and says the charges were fabricated by a biased police force and state prosecution service, overseen by a weak attorney general, in league with political opponents and the media.