Report: Key witness says Bezeq owner ‘pushed hard’ for PM to fire ministry chief

Report: Key witness says Bezeq owner ‘pushed hard’ for PM to fire ministry chief

Nir Hefetz details alleged give-and-take relations between Netanyahus and Elovitch, says Sara sent him to threaten Elovitch of financial damage if press coverage did not improve

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)
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)

A key state witness in the most severe criminal case facing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told investigators the controlling shareholder of the Bezeq telecommunications group repeatedly pressed for the firing of the Communication Ministry’s director-general in order to advance his company’s interests, according to a new report.

In Case 4000, Netanyahu is suspected of pushing regulatory decisions financially benefiting Bezeq’s Shaul Elovitch, in return for ongoing positive coverage from Elovitch’s Walla news site.

One move particularly scrutinized by investigators was the 2015 removal of the Communication Ministry’s director-general Avi Berger and his replacement with Shlomo Filber — now also a state witness in the case — seen as more accommodating of the prime minister’s wishes.

Berger was opposed to the merger of Bezeq with its Yes satellite TV subsidiary, which was much desired by Elovitch.

According to a Channel 12 news report Friday, citing leaked transcripts, Hefetz told police that Elovitch “pushed [the issue] hard. He had conversations with me about it too — that Bibi needs to fire [Berger] already…because he’s the one stopping it… he’s the one blocking the Yes deal.”

Shaul Elovitch arrives at the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court for a remand hearing in Case 4000, February 26, 2018. (Flash90)

He said Elovitch called Berger “impudent, doing things that are the opposite of what the prime minister wants.” Elovitch’s message was that the leadership of the ministry “was dismissive of the prime minister,” Hefetz said.

Hefetz added that it was clear Elovitch wanted the message conveyed to Netanyahu. “When you make your opinion known so precisely about something so specific — it was obvious to me he expected me to pass it on.”

Hefetz said Elovitch surprised him with his insider knowledge of the goings on in Netanyahu’s inner circles, and following the 2015 national election was aware of the candidates to serve as communication minister and tried to get one he favored installed.

He was particularly opposed to Gilad Erdan, who had served in the post between 2013-2014, getting reappointed. And he was very much interested in Netanyahu keeping the portfolio for himself — which is what eventually happened, with the premier also serving as communications minister in 2014-2017.

Hefetz said he often served as an intermediary between the Netanyahus and Elovitch regarding coverage on Walla. Testimonies from the case have indicated that coverage of the Netanyahus on Walla was repeatedly changed and softened following demands by the prime minister’s family.

“I would get complaints about Walla from Bibi himself… he joined the criticism by [wife] Sara and [son] Yair about negative coverage on Walla, and would call me… asking for corrections or that I complain to Shaul about items.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and his wife Sara stand outside Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs on September 4, 2019. (PMO)

“When the phone call came from [the Prime Minister’s Residence] I would hear Yair’s voice speaking in the background as his father spoke to me, telling him ‘Tell him this, tell him that.’ I would hear Yair goading him on, meaning Netanyahu was adopting his [son’s] line.”

On one occasion, Hefetz said, a lawyer for the family, Yossi Cohen, recounted to him that he was shocked when “Yair came into the room waving an item on Walla and shouting, really shouting… at his two parents: ‘Look what they’re saying now on Walla, after the billions you arranged for Shaul and [his wife] Iris.'”

Hefetz said Cohen eventually led Yair out of the room “and asked him not to repeat those words.”

Hefetz said the prime minister would often be assailed by his wife and his son on such matters, with Sara sometimes accusing him of being weak, and on such occasions he would freeze and remain silent.

Yair Netanyahu, son of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Flash90)

Hefetz said Sara Netanyahu eventually sent him to threaten Elovitch that the Netanyahus would sever their connections with them over their ongoing unhappiness. He said it was clearly implied that Elovitch’s business interests would be hurt as a result.

“She sent me to deliver a threat: ‘We will hurt you on regulatory matters if the site doesn’t start behaving.’

“You need to understand that in conversations with such polite and clever and careful people as Sara, especially on the phone, she tells a tale without saying the words outright, but so that the other side will understand the message exactly. So she doesn’t say the word ‘regulation’ but it was clear that I was supposed to make a threat.”

According to a leak this week of testimony by Yair Netanyahu to police, the prime minister’s son denied having intervened in content on Walla or contacting its management to seek changes to stories, calling Hefetz’s claims he was constantly in contact with the website owners as “lies.”

Responding to Hefetz’s reported testimony, a spokesman for Netanyahu said “the claim Shaul Elovitch or Nir Hefetz conveyed a message to the prime minister to fire Berger is a lie. Elovitch and Hefetz never spoke with the prime minister on the subject.

“The statements attributed to Sara Netanyahu and Yair Netanyahu are also brazen and vile lies.”

An attorney for Elovitch also called the claims allegedly made by Hefetz lies and added that Hefetz’s full testimony was filled with contradictory statements that painted him as an unreliable witness.

Netanyahu faces charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in the case. He also faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in two other cases, named 1000 and 2000.

Former Communications Ministry director-general Shlomo Filber at a Knesset committee meeting on July 24, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

According to a Channel 13 report Thursday, state prosecutors have begun drafting a legal opinion recommending Netanyahu stand trial in all three cases, following the completion of the hearing process last month.

Prosecutors believed Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit should keep the original proposed charges intact in all three cases, unconvinced by the defense’s efforts during the hearing to disprove the accusations, the report said.

Mandeblit on Sunday began consultations with state prosecutors to make a decision on whether to indict Netanyahu in the three corruption cases. He is believed to be planning to make a decision by mid-to-late November.

Following the hearing, Channels 12 and 13 both quoted unnamed sources saying some on Mandelblit’s team are inclined to drop the most serious charge, of bribery in Case 4000, though both reports stressed that the decision is ultimately Mandelblit’s.

The attorney general published the draft charges at length in February.

The Channel 12 report said that Netanyahu’s lawyers had not managed to present anything new in cases 1000 and 2000, but in Case 4000, the lawyers had presented an “alternate narrative,” which Mandelblit was considering. It did not give any details on this “alternate narrative.”

Channel 13 said there was “a tendency” among some in the state prosecution team toward fraud and breach of trust charges only in Case 4000, dropping the bribery charge. Channel 13 also reported, however, that the “senior” prosecutors remain convinced that a bribery charge is appropriate.

Netanyahu, who denies any wrongdoing, has repeatedly claimed that he is the victim of a witch hunt by the media, the left, police and the state prosecution, designed to oust him from power.

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