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Netanyahu makes rare court appearance as ex-aide’s testimony delayed

With new evidence surfacing, judges decide former PM’s confidant Nir Hefetz won’t take the stand until next week

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, second right, arrives for a court hearing on corruption charges November 16, 2021, in Jerusalem. (Jack Guez/Pool Photo via AP)
Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, second right, arrives for a court hearing on corruption charges November 16, 2021, in Jerusalem. (Jack Guez/Pool Photo via AP)

Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu arrived Tuesday morning at the Jerusalem District Court, where a former close aide had been expected to start his testimony, making just his third courtroom appearance since his corruption trial began a year and a half ago.

During the hearing, the judges accepted the defense’s argument and decided to put off by a week the testimony of the key witness, former Netanyahu aide and confidant Nir Hefetz, following new revelations widely published by Hebrew-language media on Monday evening.

Netanyahu’s defense team had requested that Hefetz’s testimony be postponed in order for them to have time to receive and review the new material.

Netanyahu was accompanied in court by his son Avner, and Likud MKs Amir Ohana, Galit Distel Atbaryan and Shlomo Karhi.

Hefetz also arrived at the court on Tuesday morning ahead of the decision. His testimony, now set to begin next Monday, is expected to take a number of weeks.

The court expressed displeasure over the fact that the information had been leaked to the media, the day before Hefetz was set to begin testifying.

“This is a very serious incident,” said Netanyahu defense attorney Amit Hadad.

Liat Ben Ari arrives for a court hearing in the trial of opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu at the Jerusalem District Court, November 16, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Judge Moshe Bar-Am said the leaks were “really inappropriate,” to which prosecutor Liat Ben-Ari responded that they were “shocked” by them.

Bar-Am responded, “It’s nice to be shocked, but the question is what can be done about it?”

Hadad said the defense would be writing to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and asking him to open an investigation into the leaks.

The judges had questioned whether it would be possible for Hefetz, now a state witness, to be questioned only on matters relating to Case 4000, the most serious of the three cases against the former premier, while avoiding anything to do with Case 1000,  the case connected to the most recent revelations. Ultimately they decided to delay Hefetz taking the stand.

Nir Hefetz, former spokesman of Benjamin Netanyahu, is pictured outside a Jerusalem court house, on November 16, 2021 (JACK GUEZ / POOL / AFP)

The new revelations relate to Case 1000, which involves suspicions that Netanyahu illicitly accepted gifts including cigars and champagne from two billionaires — Hollywood-based Israeli movie mogul Arnon Milchan and Australian magnate James Packer. Reports said another witness had come forward with new evidence alleging that Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, had accepted an expensive bracelet and other gifts from two billionaire friends, Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer.

In another case, Case 2000, 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. Mozes is charged with bribery in the case.

Netanyahu faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in Case 1000 and in Case 2000, and charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in Case 4000. He says all the allegations against him were fabricated by the police and prosecution, and denies any wrongdoing.

Prosecutors had told the court on Monday that since the recent investigation that yielded the new evidence had not been completed until that very morning, they had been unable to provide the defense with the material, and they therefore didn’t object to a delay of Hefetz’s testimony even though the new evidence didn’t directly relate to it.

Supporters of opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu outside his trial at the Jerusalem District Court, November 16, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Hefetz made thousands of recordings of conversations during his years working with the Netanyahus and they are to be a key element of his evidence in Case 4000, which involves an alleged bribery deal in which a telecom firm got regulatory benefits in exchange for giving Netanyahu positive media coverage.

On Sunday, Channel 12 news broadcast recordings of conversations that Hefetz had with Netanyahu, his wife Sara and his son Yair.

According to Sunday’s report, the recordings show how close Hefetz was to the Netanyahus, and their alleged obsession with their media image.

More of the recordings appeared to show the prime minister’s wife instructing Hefetz to act against her husband’s political opponents, at a time when Hefetz had been appointed head of the National Information Directorate, the report said.

A statement on behalf of Netanyahu in response to that report said that “as expected, we have returned to the period of selective coverage, which [typically] begins with loud trumpeting and ends with a small weak voice.”

Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen as he arrives for a court hearing at the District Court in Jerusalem on April 5, 2021. (Oren Ben Hakoon/POOL)

In Case 4000, Netanyahu 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 Elovitch-owned Walla news website. Netanyahu is accused of abusing his powers when he served as both prime minister and communications minister from 2014 to 2017.

Hefetz turned state witness after being arrested and questioned over a two-week period, and is believed to have provided prosecutors with key information as an interlocutor between Netanyahu and Elovitch.

Based on the information received by the network, Hefetz in his testimony is expected to highlight the Netanyahus’ “obsession” with the media, particularly the Walla news site. 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,” Hefetz told prosecutors.

The evidentiary phase of Netanyahu’s trial opened in April and has so far heard testimony from senior executives at the Walla website.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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