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Netanyahu trial

Ex-Netanyahu aide cries in court recalling arrest, says testimony is ‘entire truth’

Nir Hefetz breaks down, forcing pause, as he describes decision to turn state witness under ‘monstrous pressure’; tells of Murdoch news channel pitch scripted by Netanyahu

Nir Hefetz at a hearing at the Jerusalem District Court on November 29, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Nir Hefetz at a hearing at the Jerusalem District Court on November 29, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

An ex-aide to former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu broke down in court on Monday as he described making the decision to turn state witness in the investigation into the former prime minister.

The court was briefly adjourned when Nir Hefetz began to cry.

“I was under heavy pressure and the conditions were very difficult,” Hefetz told the court of his 15 days of detention as he was being interrogated in the case in early 2018. He said that during that period he was under pressure “that reached monstrous proportions.”

“I decided, like a person who goes in for surgery and is sedated, that I would trust the doctor. My doctor [in this situation] is a lawyer, and I will do what he tells me. That’s what I did, at least in the first week of interrogations,” Hefetz said.

“After 11 days of detention, I said to myself: How can I have reached the most difficult situation in my life, certainly from a legal perspective, and how can there be one option on the table that is not being talked about?” Hefetz said. He said that at that stage, the possibility of turning state witness began being discussed.

At that point Hefetz began to cry and the judges ordered a short recess.

“I felt weak — cognitively and physically,” Hefetz said when his testimony resumed. “It was a difficult process. My son is against [the decision] to this day. It was hard on the family.”

However, Hefetz stressed that these facts should not be seen as putting in question the content of his testimony.

“My testimony is unequivocally the truth,” he said. “It’s part of the process in which I am taking responsibility for those places where I made mistakes. I am fully committed to helping the court as much as I can, humbly, to reach the truth. Even if I need to pay a price.”

Netanyahu was not present in the courtroom on Monday.

Hefetz has provided prosecutors with key information as an interlocutor between Netanyahu and Bezeq’s controlling shareholder, Shaul Elovitch, as the prime minister sought to positively influence coverage of his affairs through the Elovitch-owned Walla news site. Hefetz was often the one communicating the premier’s wishes to Walla management and has testified on the nature of this relationship.

Netanyahu is accused of bribery in the case, allegedly providing regulatory benefits to Bezeq in return for positive coverage on Walla. He denies the allegations.

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.

Shaul Elovitch arrives at the Jerusalem District Court for hearing in the Netanyahu trial, November 22, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In 2018, after he was arrested in connection with one of Netanyahu’s corruption cases, Hefetz signed a state witness deal and provided investigators with recordings of conversations with Netanyahu and his family.

Recalling other efforts to influence local media, Hefetz on Monday described a meeting in London with media mogul Rupert Murdoch and his son on the possibility of establishing a news network in Israel. Hefetz did not specify which of Murdoch’s sons was present at the meeting.

Rupert Murdoch at an event in New York, Oct. 30, 2019. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

“Journalist Eran Tiefenbrunn and a producer joined the meeting,” Hefetz told the court, naming a Walla editor in whose hiring Netanyahu’s wife and son were said to have been involved.

“The presentation was prepared by Benjamin Netanyahu. We met about it before the meeting and Netanyahu prepared every word. We even rehearsed how I would present it. Murdoch agreed in principle.”

Hefetz said he and Netanyahu’s lawyer, Amit Hadad, flew to the United States to seek funding for the project from Jewish-American billionaire Larry Ellison, co-founder of Oracle.

Amit Hadad arrives for a hearing at the Jerusalem District Court on November 23, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Hefetz said the meeting was also attended by right-wing journalist Akiva Bigman.

“Netanyahu wanted him to run the project. I thought he was not suitable,” Hefetz said.

“Amit Hadad and I went and made a presentation to Larry Ellison in San Francisco. He agreed to finance [the potential news network] with $29 million,” Hefetz said. “I asked Netanyahu whether there would be a problem in encouraging foreign investors.”

Hefetz said Netanyhau told him he had checked and there was no problem with foreign investors, the court heard. Ellison has also been named as a witness in the trial.

Oracle’s Larry Ellison gestures while giving a keynote address at Oracle OpenWorld in San Francisco, October 2, 2012. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

Hefetz’s testimony on Monday, his fourth day taking the stand, related to Case 4000, in which Netanyahu is alleged to have worked to illicitly and lucratively benefit the business interests of Elovitch in exchange for positive coverage on Walla.

Last Wednesday, the court heard the first recordings of Netanyahu as tapes of the Netanyahu family made by Hefetz played in the courtroom.

Two recordings of conversations between Hefetz and Netanyahu’s son Yair, in which the prime minister could be heard in the background, were played by the prosecution to bolster the claim that the Netanyahus were directly involved in directing how the media covered them.

Netanyahu — who is a defendant along with Elovitch and his wife, Iris — is accused of abusing his powers when he served as both prime minister and communications minister from 2014 to 2017, and is charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in the case. He also stands accused of fraud and breach of trust in another two cases. He claims that the allegations against him were fabricated by the police and prosecution, and denies any wrongdoing.

Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu at the Jerusalem District Court, on November 22, 2021. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Pool)

Hefetz testified to making thousands of recordings of conversations during his years working with the Netanyahus. But as the first of them was played before the court on Wednesday, Hefetz claimed that he never intended to record the prime minister but that an app on his phone automatically recorded all conversations.

Last Tuesday, Hefetz testified that he, Yair Netanyahu and the former prime minister’s wife Sara Netanyahu were involved in pushing the Elovitches and others to wipe incriminating text messages from their phones, but said Benjamin Netanyahu was likely unaware.

He also told the court that Sara Netanyahu had threatened to use government regulatory powers as leverage to force changes to Walla news coverage.

Hefetz’s first day of testimony, last Monday, focused on the alleged favors Netanyahu granted to Bezeq, as well as links between the regulatory benefits and the positive media coverage.

Hefetz highlighted the Netanyahu family’s “obsession” with the media, saying that spokespeople were made aware that part of their job was to “correct the historical injustice done to Sara Netanyahu, as a result of her husband’s public role.”

The former prime minister’s wife has often been depicted unflatteringly in the media for alleged abusive conduct toward staff and misuse of state funds for private matters.

Hefetz said that Elovitch granted the Netanyahus “the highest level of control” over the Walla site, including “what would be on the homepage and what the headline would be.”

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