Netanyahus dismiss report as 'false, unprofessional gossip'

Former Netanyahu confidant’s diary details spending fights, alleged misuse

Channel 13 reports that Nir Hefetz, spokesman-turned-state’s witness in PM’s criminal probes, kept detailed records for years about Netanyahus’ demands for public funds

Former prime minister's spokesman Nir Hefetz at the Herzliya Magistrate's Court for a libel suit against him and other associates of the prime minister on December 26, 2017. (Flash90)
Former prime minister's spokesman Nir Hefetz at the Herzliya Magistrate's Court for a libel suit against him and other associates of the prime minister on December 26, 2017. (Flash90)

Nir Hefetz, who was the Netanyahu family’s most trusted spokesman until he turned state’s witness in their corruption investigations, painstakingly recorded the Netanyahus’ behavior in almost daily, real-time entries in diaries he kept for several years while in their employ, Channel 13 news reported on Tuesday.

Those diaries became a key part of the evidence in corruption cases against both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, and may have contributed to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s decision to indict Sara for misuse of public funds.

Among the testimony police found in the diaries were detailed accounts of Hefetz’s conversations with Prime Minister’s Office legal adviser Shlomit Barnea Farago, over the Netanyahus’ alleged habit of having government cars deliver prepared food from the state residence in Jerusalem to their private home in Caesarea, in apparent contravention of PMO rules.

The entries detailed constant requests for public funds to cover upkeep of the Caesarea home’s swimming pool, the Netanyahus’ restaurant bills, and a long list of other personal expenses.

Sara Netanyahu went on trial in November for alleged misuse of some $100,000 in state funds. Prosecutors agreed to enter into arbitration in the case as regular court proceedings move forward.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s wife Sara, center, sits in a courtroom in Jerusalem, on October 7, 2018. (Amit Shabi, Yedioth Ahronoth, Pool via AP)

Netanyahu — along with Ezra Saidoff, a former deputy director general of the Prime Minister’s Office — faces charges of fraud and breach of trust for allegedly overspending on private meals at the prime minister’s official residence, while there was a full-time chef on staff.

The prime minister and his wife have denied any wrongdoing in all cases.

In July 2010, Hefetz wrote: “[Then-Netanyahu confidant] Natan [Eshel] is missing from the office a great deal. He often goes to visit [the official residence] in Balfour [Street in Jerusalem], and sometimes also goes to Caesarea. Shlomit [Barnea Farago] says there were major arguments over the issue of dining and nutrition in Caesarea” — a reference to alleged demands by Sara Netanyahu to expand the provisions given to the family at state expense.

Barnea Farago “showed me her correspondence with Natan about the issue,” Hefetz continued. “Both she and [then-Netanyahu bureau chief] Gil Shefer told me at various opportunities about cars with [government] drivers that regularly leave Balfour for Caesarea with food” prepared for the official residence.

The journals revealed, according to Channel 13, that the demands by the Netanyahus for state provision of their food in their private residence was an issue that drew the time and attention of some of the most senior officials in government.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and Nir Hefetz, left, arrive at the weekly cabinet meeting held in the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, December 13, 2009. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Hefetz recorded details of a meeting in August 2009 with Barnea Farago. “We agreed that she would consult with [then-attorney general] Meni Mazuz and [then-civil service commissioner] Shmuel Hollander, and they would draft written rules that would guide us in how to handle the many questions from Sara and Yair [Netanyahu], and the family’s issues in general. I notified Bibi [of the decision] after the meeting, and he said he would speak to Meni Mazuz himself. On Friday night, he told me over the phone that he spoke with Mazuz and Mazuz, he said, laughed at the very question.”

He also complained regularly of the Netanyahus’ demands from him to obtain positive media coverage. “A few days before Rosh Hashana,” he recorded in September 2009, “Sara wanted to host the entire coalition in Balfour for what she called ‘an evening of camaraderie in a warm and welcoming atmosphere.’ After the event she wanted me to make sure that all the newspapers wrote about how warm and welcoming the hosting was, and that she was the source of said atmosphere. Unfortunately, only Israel Hayom wrote that, and of course there were complaints about me.”

Shortly before the evening of “camaraderie,” he wrote, “I was stunned to discover, in a meeting in Natan Eshel’s room” with several other staffers, “that said home hospitality would cost the state 420 shekels ($110 at the time) a head, times 120 people” — 70 coalition members, some partners and a handful of Netanyahu office staffers.

“They also wanted to spend thousands of shekels on luxurious flower arrangements, design and decorations, chairs and more,” he wrote.

Hefetz’s concerns appeared to be the look of the thing, and how it might appear in the media.

Prime Minister’s Office Legal Adviser Shlomit Barnea Farago attends an award ceremony in Jerusalem on December 4, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“I left Natan’s room immediately and went to the prime minister to tell him that the media criticism will be intense. He understood immediately and said, ‘Don’t go over 100 shekels [$26 at the time] a head.’ Then the prime minister instructed not to place the planned torches outside the residence entrance, so it doesn’t look like too much splendor to the paparazzi photographers.”

He added: “Sara as usual asked to invite the Government Press Office too. The prime minister was opposed. She insisted, he said no, and as usual I didn’t know what to do. The prime minister, who was frightened by the public criticism over the spending while unemployment was on the rise, then instructed that the entire thing be paid from the Likud’s money.”

In August 2009, Hefetz recorded a more problematic episode that may have constituted a breach of both PMO rules and the law.

“Shlomit told me she received a request [from the Netanyahus] to fix a leaking roof in the villa in Caesarea, and she thought that was odd because it’s summer [when rain doesn’t fall for several months]. She asked for receipts and discovered the repair order was from October 2008 and the work had already been done by March 2009. Shlomit was worried that it amounted to an attempt to retroactively pay off [with public funds] something done before Netanyahu was elected prime minister. She said she has kept all the paperwork.”

Hefetz writes that Barnea Farago was one of several officials to complain about repeated demands by the Netanyahus for the state to cover the costs of repairing a leak in the pool at the Caesarea home.

View of the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem on June 23, 2009. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

“Shlomit said there was a lot of pressure for the Prime Minister’s Office to fund repairing a leak in the pool in Caesarea. That also seemed strange to her. Add to that what [then-PMO director general] Eyal Gabbay told me in his room a week ago, that his time was limited because he has to deal with and reject all sorts of requests to fund things in the prime minister’s homes. Eyal gave as an example 3,500 shekels [$921 at the time] for upkeep of the swimming pool in Caesarea that he did not approve. In a phone call with [Israeli Hollywood producer and Netanyahu friend Arnon] Milchan afterwards, he also told me he’d heard about the demand to fund pool upkeep.”

In a separate entry, Hefetz records yet another conversation about the Netanyahus’ spending, this time the demand that their restaurant bills be covered by public funds.

He describes a meeting with Ezra Saidoff, then-deputy director general in charge of the PMO’s various installations, and Barnea Farago in which “Shlomit said the prime minister earns a salary like any other citizen, and in the end has to pay for his private affairs from his own money. She also said that every time [the Netanyahus] go out to a restaurant there’s a problem with them. There’s a 200-shekel-a-head budget for ordering take-away to the Prime Minister’s Residence, and then when Sara and Bibi go out to a restaurant, then demand to get the same amount covered as in the take-away budget. According to Shlomit, that’s not okay, they have to pay like anyone else when they go to a restaurant.”

The Netanyahu family dismissed the Channel 13 report and quotes from the Hefetz diaries as “false gossip.”

The response said: “More false, unprofessional gossip, almost a decade old, that isn’t worth publishing, not even in the back pages of the gossip sections, and whose sole purpose is to continue to apply tremendous pressure to indict Prime Minister Netanyahu at any price.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s former spokesman Nir Hefetz (foreground) and Bezeq controlling shareholder Shaul Elovitch attend a remand hearing at the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court, February 26, 2018. (Flash90)

The Netanyahus are also both suspects in the Bezeq graft probe, dubbed by police “Case 4000.” The investigation involves suspicions Netanyahu advanced regulations benefiting Shaul Elovitch, the telecommunication giant’s largest shareholder, in exchange for positive coverage from the Bezeq-owned Walla news site. In December, police announced it was recommending bribery charges against both Netanyahus in the case. The attorney general has yet to decide whether to press charges.

Sara Netanyahu, police said, acted on the prime minister’s behalf to coordinate coverage at Walla with Shaul Elovitch, Iris Elovitch and Ilan Yeshua, the CEO of the news site, against whom the police also recommended bribery charges.

Hefetz in March became a state witness in the investigation after he was arrested and questioned under caution by police over his involvement in the alleged affair.

He was the third former top adviser to Netanyahu to become a state witness in a series of corruption investigations involving the prime minister, which involve suspicions he advanced businessmen’s interests in exchange for gifts and favors.

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