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Netanyahu trial

Judges reject Netanyahu trial witness’s request for closed-door cross-examination

Ex-Netanyahu aide Nir Hefetz says ‘draconian’ police tactics caused him to turn state witness, most details of cops’ maneuvers are under a gag order to protect his privacy

Nir Hefetz arrives for a court hearing at the Jerusalem District Court on November 30, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Nir Hefetz arrives for a court hearing at the Jerusalem District Court on November 30, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A key state witness ended his main testimony on Tuesday in the corruption trial against former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and started his cross-examination, which will be public despite the witness’s request to hold parts of it behind closed doors for privacy reasons.

Judges rejected former Netanyahu aide Nir Hefetz’s request to hold in private parts of the cross-examination discussing a police maneuver during his interrogation that played a part in him agreeing to become a state witness.

Most details of the maneuver are under a gag order to protect Hefetz’s privacy, although the media has reported that it involved Hefetz’s wife being called to the police station, as well as another woman.

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 having provided regulatory benefits to Bezeq in return for positive coverage on Walla. He denies the allegations.

In the cross-examination, Netanyahu’s defense team is focusing on the maneuver, trying to undermine Hefetz’s testimony by arguing that he had agreed to become a state witness and provide incriminating information under duress. Hefetz has said that despite the heavy pressure, his testimony is “unequivocally the truth.”

Asked about the matter on Tuesday by Netanyahu lawyer Boaz Ben-Tzur, Hefetz said police interrogators utilized “draconian” interrogation tactics against him during their questioning.

“I hadn’t imagined such tactics could be employed, definitely when they’re disproportionate to the suspicions over which I was being questioned,” Hefetz answered. “I had a nightmarish night without sleep with difficult events.”

Hefetz said that the events indicated that police had tailed him and secretly recorded his whereabouts at least a week before his initial arrest in early 2018.

He said police took him out of the interrogation room and made sure he would pass next to his wife in the corridor, telling him not to talk to her. Officers also showed Hefetz videos that made it clear to him that “there was a threat here to violate my privacy… for leverage.”

A composite image of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Bezeq controlling shareholder, Shaul Elovitch. (Flash90: Ohad Zwigenberg/POOL)

He continued to detail the pressure to become state witness, including explicit threats by police officers.

Attorneys for Hefetz had submitted a request for the portions of the cross-examination to be held without media present, since they could harm his privacy and the privacy of his family and embarrass him.

But judges rejected the request, ruling that the cross-examination will be held publicly, although they will consider kicking out media for specific narrow instances. Judges said that the hearing should be public, “with an exception made if a public hearing will deter a witness.”

Just 20 minutes of Tuesday’s session were held behind closed doors.

On Monday, Hefetz broke down in court as he described making the decision to turn state witness.

“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.

Nir Hefetz seen as he arrives for a hearing at the Jerusalem District Court on November 30, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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.”

Hefetz’s testimony mostly 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. Some of it has related to Case 2000, in which Netanyahu 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.

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.

In 2018, after he was arrested as a possible accomplice 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.

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