Netanyahu allies unfazed by latest confidant to turn on PM

Netanyahu allies unfazed by latest confidant to turn on PM

Likud's Regev and Steinitz say probe must be allowed to run its course; Jewish Home's Bennett: State's witness is a 'procedural component of an investigation'

Culture Minister Miri Regev arrives at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on December 31, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Culture Minister Miri Regev arrives at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on December 31, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Leading members of Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet appeared unshaken Monday by news that yet another former associate of the prime minister had turned state’s witness against him in the Bezeq corruption probe, and said they would continue to serve under him.

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz (Likud) said there was “no justification at the moment” to consider replacing Netanyahu in the premiership, “as long as there is no judicial ruling.” He told 103FM radio he “does not see it happening,” though he qualified his statement: “But never say never.”

He added that he was “not pleased” with the news that Nir Hefetz, a former top media adviser to Netanyahu, had agreed to testify against him. “I hope, like any other sane, rational citizen, that in the end, like in other cases, it will end in nothing.”

Israeli Minister of National Infrastructure Yuval Steinitz arrives to the weekly government conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on July 17, 2016. (Alex Kolomoisky/Flash90)

Culture Minister Miri Regev (Likud) said she was “unimpressed by state’s witnesses, because unlike (the media) I don’t rush to hang people in the village square.”

She called for patience and said police should be allowed to conclude their work. “When the evidence and findings are brought to the attorney general he will take the decision,” she said.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing Jewish Home party, said, “A state’s witness is a procedural component of an investigation… it’s a stage in the investigation.”

He stressed that Netanyahu should enjoy the presumption of innocence until proven otherwise, “no matter how many state’s witness (agreements) are signed.”

Voices from the opposition were less supportive.

Zionist Union head Avi Gabbay, in Washington DC to attend the AIPAC Policy Conference, said, “We as a people are better than the terrible news of corruption coming from Israel, which sadly everyone (here) is asking about.

Zionist Union party leader Avi Gabbay addresses the pro-Israel US lobby AIPAC at its policy conference in Washington DC, March 4, 2018. (John Bowel)

“After nine years [of Netanyahu in power], we deserve a government that concerns itself with the nation, and not a nation that concerns itself with the government’s criminal dealings,” he added.

MK Ofer Shelah of the centrist Yesh Atid party said, “What more needs to happen for Benjamin Netanyahu to do the only right, reasonable thing and go home?” He lamented that “not one decent person, or decent party” in the coalition “has stood up and said, ‘Enough. this is no way to run a country. A suspect such as he cannot stand at its head.'”

MK Tamar Zandberg, considered a leading candidate to head the left-wing Meretz party, said: “It doesn’t make sense for a prime minister whose close associates have all admitted to criminal acts… to continue to run state affairs as though nothing has happened.

“This is what the breakdown of a mafia looks like, not a government,” she added.

Netanyahu on Monday dismissed news of Hefetz’s agreement to testify against him, with sources close to him saying it was merely further proof that legal authorities were grasping at straws.

“When there is something [of substance] there’s no need for even one state’s witness,” the sources said. “When there is nothing, not even a thousand state’s witnesses will help.

“The unending race for state’s witnesses is the best proof that there is nothing — and there won’t be anything,” they said.

Police announced earlier that “a state’s witness agreement was signed last night between the Israel Securities Authority’s Investigations, Intelligence and Market Surveillance Department and the Israel Police’s national anti-fraud unit Lahav 433 and Nir Hefetz.”

Hefetz joins Shlomo Filber, the suspended director-general of the Communications Ministry and a longtime Netanyahu confidant, who also signed a deal last month to turn state’s witness and possibly incriminate the prime minister in the affair.

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)

Sources close to Hefetz said he had decided he “wouldn’t take a bullet for Netanyahu” in the Bezeq corruption probe.

“He believes the Netanyahu era is over,” the sources said, and is also “testifying for the good of the nation.”

As part of the state’s witness agreement he signed, Hefetz, suspected of bribery in the case, was told that he would not serve prison time or pay a fine for his actions. He has promised to provide police with incriminating text messages and recordings of Netanyahu and his wife in several criminal cases involving the prime minister, including the Bezeq probe, known as Case 4000, and the so-called Case 1000.

According to the Walla news site, police saw Hefetz as a star witness whose testimony in the case would make it significantly stronger, and had worked hard to recruit him since his arrest two weeks ago.

Attorney Ilan Sofer, a senior criminal lawyer who previously led to another suspect — Miki Ganor — turning state’s witness in a separate case linked to Netanyahu, Case 3000, represented Hefetz in the talks, according to Haaretz.

The Case 4000 investigation involves suspicions that Elovitch ordered the Walla news site, which he owns, to grant fawning coverage to the Netanyahus in exchange for the prime minister’s advancement of regulations benefiting him financially.

Shaul Elovitch arrives for extension of his remand in case 4000 at the Magistrate’s Court in Rishon Lezion, February 18, 2018. (Flash90)

Elovitch is suspected of giving and receiving bribes and illicit favors worth “up to a billion shekels” — more than one-quarter of a billion US dollars — prosecutor Yehudit Tirosh of the Israel Securities Authority said last week during a hearing. Netanyahu and Elovitch have dismissed the allegation.

Netanyahu served as communications minister from November 2014 to February 2017. During that time, Walla’s coverage notably changed to favor the Netanyahu family, and Bezeq was given permission, among other things, to buy the satellite television provider Yes, overriding antitrust issues, and to renege on its commitment to lease out its infrastructure to telecom competitors, so they could provide competing fixed line and internet services.

Last month, police recommended that the prime minister be indicted for a series of serious corruption charges including bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in two other cases.

In Case 1000, Netanyahu and his wife are suspected of receiving illicit gifts from billionaire benefactors, amounting to some NIS 1 million ($282,000) worth of cigars and champagne from the Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and Australian resort owner James Packer in return for certain benefits.

Case 2000 involves a suspected illicit quid-pro-quo deal between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes that would have seen the prime minister weaken a rival daily, the Sheldon Adelson-backed Israel Hayom, in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.

Netanyahu has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing in any of the cases.

Raoul Wootliff and Michael Bachner contributed to this report.

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