A key witness for the prosecution in Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial alleged Tuesday that the former premier tried “to rob the state’s funds for personal needs” on dozens of occasions.
Former Netanyahu family spokesman and confidant Nir Hefetz told the Jerusalem District Court that he had tried to warn the then-premier that he was crossing the boundaries of legality.
Hefetz said Netanyahu was reluctant to pay for anything out of pocket “a la Case 1000,” in which the former prime minister 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.
“He continued [with this behavior] when I was sure he knew he was in a criminally problematic place,” Hefetz said.
“I am talking about a lot of cases in which he stood by and tried to rob the state’s funds for personal needs. It happened dozens of times,” Hefetz said.
Hefetz also said he had warned Netanyahu about what later became Case 2000, in which the former premier is accused of attempting to reach a quid pro quo with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes for positive media coverage in exchange for legislation weakening rival newspaper Israel Hayom.
“I went into the room and told [Netanyahu] there was a problem with antitrust law in [Case] 2000,” Hefetz said.
At the start of his cross-examination, Hefetz was questioned about the period leading up to his decision to turn state witness and recounted the conversation he had with investigators.
“I said that as a state witness, I am going to pay an unbearably heavy price, for example in being branded as a ‘traitor.’ I was aware of the price,” he said, adding that “under no circumstances was I pressured into this deal. I was in negotiations.”
On Monday, Hefetz had testified that he thought authorities handled the case more like “a persecution than an investigation.” Days earlier, he told the court that police interrogators threatened to destroy his relationships with his family members if he did not turn on his ex-boss.
Nonetheless, Hefetz said last week that despite the heavy pressure, his testimony was “unequivocally the truth.” The defense has attempted to have his testimony thrown out for having been given under pressure.
Hefetz is the state’s star witness in Case 4000, the most serious of the three cases in which Netanyahu is facing charges. The ex-premier is alleged to have worked to illicitly and lucratively benefit the business interests of Bezeq’s controlling shareholder Shaul Elovitch in exchange for positive coverage on the Walla news site owned by Elovitch, but Hefetz said he did not believe there was bribery.
“Is positive coverage a bribe? That borders on delusion,” he said. “I thought then, and I still think, that Case 4000 would not have come into being if Netanyahu had not been prime minister.”
“I have been in the media for many years and I know it’s a give-and-take. I thought the investigative authorities came close to having an agenda” against the premier, he said.
Hefetz left a long career in journalism in 2009 to work as a spokesman for Netanyahu’s government, and in 2014 became the Netanyahu family’s spokesman and adviser.
On Monday, Hefetz said that he left his position because he feared the former prime minister was not fit to serve. Hefetz alleged that there was a top-secret security incident during his tenure that endangered thousands.
“I told my interrogators, ‘It’s incredible that until today it still hasn’t been revealed,’” he said. ‘I left my job with Netanyahu in September 2017 because I believed that he was no longer fit to make security decisions for the State of Israel due to the situation surrounding him. I still believe that today.”
Hefetz did not further elaborate on the alleged incident, but Hebrew media reports said he was referring to Israel’s placement of metal detectors at the Temple Mount after three Arab Israeli terrorists shot dead two police officers at the Jerusalem holy site in July 2017.
The metal detectors were decried by local Muslim officials as an attempt to change the status quo. The weeks that followed saw numerous bloody clashes between police and East Jerusalemites, who refused to pass through the detectors and instead held at times violent protests outside the compound.
A degree of calm was restored to the capital after the government agreed to remove the metal detectors and other security measures from the entrances to the Temple Mount on July 25.
Hefetz had claimed during police testimony that Netanyahu’s decision-making following the 2017 attack was unduly influenced by his eldest son Yair Netanyahu and wife Sara Netanyahu.
Netanyahu’s Likud party dismissed Hefetz’s remarks as “absurd,” saying Hefetz did not take part in any “security forum” in 2017.
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.