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Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Critical witness testifies at Netanyahu’s trial, reopening drifting case

JERUSALEM. The slowly flaring trial of Benjamin Netanyahu returned to the Israeli public on Monday with the first appearance of a state witness critical to the prosecution of the former leader, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.

Witness Nir Hefetz, a former government official and then a confidant of the Netanyahu family, testified about his role in the relationship between Netanyahu and the owners of a major news website and telecommunications company while he was in power. The prosecution’s case is based on evidence that at the time the owners, Shaul and Iris Elovich, routinely allowed Mr. Netanyahu’s family to influence the political coverage of their website in exchange for lucrative regulatory incentives provided to them.

Netanyahu pleaded not guilty to the charges. But if such an exchange had taken place, Mr. Hefetz would have had a direct opportunity to find out about it. As the mouthpiece of the Netanyahu family since 2014, Mr. Hefetz was the closest member of the Israeli leader’s entourage before attacking the family in 2018 by signing a state witness agreement with the prosecution.

According to the indictment, since early 2015, Mr. Hefetz has been the main liaison between the family, the Elovici and the editors of the Walla news website, making him a potentially formidable witness.

Mr Hefz’s appearance is a reminder of the relevance of a lawsuit that, until Mr Netanyahu lost power in June, was at the center of a constitutional crisis that heightened concerns about the health of Israel’s democracy and Mr Netanyahu’s legitimacy as chief minister. The trial led to a political stalemate, resulting in four elections in two years.

Unlike previous leaders accused of corruption, Netanyahu refused to step down after being indicted in 2019, instead posing as a victim of a biased judicial system. At the same time, he was accused of having staged a disastrous battle between the executive and judicial branches of government, which undermined public confidence.

His intransigence has also raised questions about whether the lawsuit will diminish his energy for effective management or whether he can use his position to influence the outcome – for example, replacing the attorney general with someone who is more likely to drop charges.

The case contributed to a rift among Netanyahu’s right-wing political alliance, resulting in some former colleagues forming a rival coalition with the centrists and leftists, forcing him to step down in June.

His departure from power diminished the gravity of some of these issues, while detailed and technical testimony from earlier witnesses made further proceedings difficult.

Mr Hefz’s central role in the prosecution case and the rare window he offers into Mr Netanyahu’s life have added energy to the process, according to spectators in the cramped courtroom who were present from the start.

“The previous witnesses were not directly related to Netanyahu,” said Tamar Almog, legal correspondent for Israel’s public broadcaster Kan. “They could not testify about what Netanyahu wanted, meant or knew – while Hefz’s testimony is meant to clarify Netanyahu’s intentions and actions.”

Mr Hefz’s testimony is likely to last for weeks, if not months, but as early as Monday he began shedding light on Mr Netanyahu’s inner life.

As his former boss sat a few yards away, Mr. Hefetz said in the courtroom that Mr. Netanyahu was an over-the-top “control freak” about media coverage and that he spent as much time on it as he did on security issues, “including what an outsider would consider nonsense.”

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Mr. Netanyahu was so punctual, Mr. Hefetz said, “You cannot punctuate without his permission.”

Mr. Hefetz recalled that he acted as a courier between Yelovichi and Netanyahu, especially during the preparations for the general elections in 2015. Mr Hefetz said that he passed on Mr Elovich’s requests in which he asked Mr Netanyahu to provide a favorable regulatory environment for the merger of the two companies partly owned by the Elovich family.

The witness said that, among other inquiries, Mr. Elovich suggested that Mr. Netanyahu take personal responsibility for the Ministry of Communications, which oversaw the merger.

The indictment lists more than 300 cases of claims made by Netanyahu regarding specific changes in coverage on the Yelovichi news site between 2013 and 2016 – claims that were largely met by Mr. Hefetz.

“Netanyahu had the most control over the Walla website, including what the headline would be and where it would appear on the home page,” said Mr. Hefetz.

Demands peaked ahead of the 2015 elections, which required multiple requests per day, and ranged from what looked like serious political interference to more frivolous questions, he said.

On election day, Mr Hefetz said he demanded that Walla post the infamous video on its home page in which Mr Netanyahu rallied his base, expressing concern that right-wing rule was in danger because that Leftist organizations “brought Arab voters to the polls in droves.” Declared a racist, Mr. Netanyahu later apologized for the remarks, which he also posted on his Facebook page.

A few weeks later, Mr. Hefetz was tasked with handing over a request for coverage of Yair Netanyahu, the prime minister’s eldest son, and his new girlfriend, which, according to the indictment, “included a request to send a paparazzi photographer.”

As part of the inner sanctuary, Mr. Hefetz also appears to have played a role in trying to obstruct justice. In December 2016, the indictment stated that, as reports emerged of investigations into Mr Netanyahu’s relationship with Mr Elovich, Mr Hefetz requested an urgent meeting with the Eloviches and expressed concerns about telephone correspondence between them. All agreed to get new phones and “remove” the old ones.

Most of the phones have gone missing, according to Misha Fettman, a lawyer who was previously part of Netanyahu’s defense team. Mr Hefz’s phone was “stolen” and the Elovichs’ phones “fell into the pool or were eaten by a dog” or were replaced with new ones, Mr Fettman said on Israeli television last week.

Many commentators have said that the new revelations, while juicy, are unlikely to change the Israeli public’s perception of Mr. Netanyahu, as most people have already formed their position.

A plea deal could force Netanyahu to retire from politics, while a conviction could mean jail time for him. But in the course of the trial, he is unlikely to affect how Israelis vote, said Nahum Barnea, a columnist for the centrist newspaper Yediot Ahronot.

“It’s like Trump – people already have an opinion about the guy,” said Mr. Barney. “It doesn’t affect the public pulse.”

Mira Novek contributed to the reportage.

World Nation News Deskhttps://www.worldnationnews.com
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