A former close aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly told police investigators that the premier’s wife and son made him ensure that all communications with the wife of an Israeli telecommunications tycoon at the center of a corruption investigation were deleted.
Nir Hefetz, who was the Netanyahu family’s most trusted spokesman, turned state’s witness last year in a series of corruption investigations implicating the prime minister.
One of the probes Hefetz provided testimony for is Case 4000, which involves suspicions Netanyahu agreed to advance regulation financially benefiting Bezeq controlling shareholder Shaul Elovitch in exchange for flattering coverage from Elovitch’s Walla news site.
Hefetz reportedly told investigators that he was called to the prime minister’s residence in mid-2017.
“Sara and Yair summoned me urgently [to the residence]. Yair was really stressed out and was almost shaking,” Hefetz was quoted as saying. “They asked me to urgently find Iris Elovitch and make sure she deleted all of the messages between them — to stand next to her and make sure they are deleted,” Hefetz said, referring to the wife of the Bezeq tycoon.
Additional testimony transcripts from Hefetz broadcast by Channel 12 on Wednesday reportedly showed the deliberations over the future of Channel 10, which in 2014 was hit by a financial crisis, with the state demanding nearly NIS 17 million (nearly $5 million) for the extension of its license, a sum the channel’s owners said was inflated to ensure the outlet’s closure.
Netanyahu, who was also communications minister at the time, said he did not intend to intervene in the matter; however, according to Hefetz’s testimony, not only was the prime minister heavily involved in the channel, he was also under pressure from Sara, Yair and his aide Natan Eshel.
Hefetz told investigators that during the months before the elections in March 2015, there were far-ranging discussions on several occasions at the prime minister’s residence over whether Channel 10 should be closed, the report said.
“Sara and Natan took a very militant line that [the channel] needed to be closed,” Hefetz reportedly told investigators, referring to a meeting that was also attended by the prime minister and his son Yair.
The questioner then asked Hefetz on what grounds they wanted the channel closed.
“It was argued that it was a hostile channel and that Bibi had two previous opportunities to close it and he hadn’t listened and was weak,” Hefetz said.
Wednesday’s leaks followed a flurry of recent media reports on the investigations.
According to a Channel 12 news report Friday, a longtime aide to Netanyahu reportedly met privately in 2015 with Elovitch to discuss a merger deal that would net the telecommunications mogul millions of shekels.
Netanyahu is suspected of an illicit quid pro quo with Elovitch — the majority shareholder in Israel’s biggest telecom firm, Bezeq, and the owner of the Walla news website — that continued for about four years, until early 2017. The alleged understanding saw Elovitch ensure favorable coverage of Netanyahu at Walla, Israel’s second largest news site, alongside critical coverage of Netanyahu’s rivals, especially in the 2013 and 2015 election periods. In return, Netanyahu allegedly intervened in regulatory and other business decisions that benefited the Israeli tycoon by hundreds of millions of dollars.
The probe is the most serious of the three investigations into the prime minister, as it includes a proposed bribery charge for both Netanyahu and Elovitch. Netanyahu is facing charges, pending a hearing, in all three cases.
The Kan public broadcaster published Wednesday a partial transcript of Netanyahu’s interrogation about his ties to Elovitch, in which he reportedly told investigators that he had only a casual relationship with the businessman.
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s lengthy description of Netanyahu’s alleged illicit dealings with Elovitch took up the majority of a 57-page document released in February in which Mandelblit set out the allegations that prompted him to announce a criminal indictment against the prime minister, pending a hearing.
Netanyahu is scheduled to answer to the charges in a pre-indictment hearing on October 2-3. These will also cover two other corruption probes in which the prime minister faces additional charges of fraud and breach of trust.
The prime minister denies any wrongdoing in all the cases against him, and has repeatedly lashed out at law enforcement and the media, including individual reporters, claiming the investigations and reports about them are part of a left-wing conspiracy.
The Central Elections Committee on Friday rejected a petition from Netanyahu’s Likud party to bar news outlets from publishing transcripts and documents from Netanyahu’s corruption investigations ahead of national elections next month.