JERUSALEM—A fearsome fixer turned star witness finally took the stand in the corruption trial of Benjamin Netanyahu Monday, exposing some of the most intimate secrets of the former Israeli prime minister’s time in office.
Bibi’s former right-hand man, Nir Hefetz, told the court that his boss had been a vain man who spent as much time on media coverage as national security. He told the trial, which is gripping the nation, that Netanyahu was obsessed with consolidating power and controlling his image, all while he was being dominated by his wife and son.
Hefetz turned state’s witness after he was jailed during part of the police investigation into Netanyahu’s alleged crimes of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. While a small clutch of Netanyahu supporters chanted, “There’s no pardon for flipped witnesses,” he entered the courtroom encircled by bodyguards. Hefetz, who was head of communications during Netanyahu’s last successful re-election campaign in 2015, began to give damning testimony which could go on for months.
“Benjamin Netanyahu?” Hefetz asked, rhetorically, “In everything having to do with media, he’s much more than a control freak. He demands every last detail. His control over everything relating to media and his own social media channels could not be tighter.”
“Netanyahu spends at least as much of his time on media as he spends on security matters, including on issues that any outsider would consider trivial,” Hefetz said, before going on to describe the prime minister’s wife, Sara Netanyahu as the person who appointed her husband’s chief of staff, spokesperson “and other positions” in Israel’s civil service.
Netanyahu was almost completely preoccupied by hostile media, Hefetz said.
All of this from a man who said Netanyahu was still “a leader I admire and whose worldview I share.” He is a brilliant man of “extraordinary capacities,” Hefetz told the court.
“Case 4000,” the one currently being heard by a three-judge panel of the Jerusalem District Court, revolves around Netanyahu’s attempts, as prime minister, to gain control over Walla News, a popular Israeli news portal.
At the time of Netanyahu’s indictment, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblitt described a “quid pro quo” between Netanyahu, who in addition to serving as prime minister appointed himself minister of communications between 2014 and 2017, and Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in Bezeq, Israel's largest telecommunications company, which owned Walla.
Hefetz described the unusual double appointment as the result of a family cabal. Sara Netanyahu and Yair, the Netanyahus’ then-24-year-old son, “insisted on the matter. It was a family decision that only he could serve as minister of communications. The way they saw it, no other minister of communications, including ministers from Netanyahu’s Likud party, would be able to withstand media pressure and would be dominated by the media. Only he [Netanyahu] could bear up under the pressure.”
Matters quickly went south. Hefetz testified that he found himself used as a go-between for Elovitch, who demanded regulatory favors that would have permitted him to build Bezeq into an even larger conglomerate. In parallel, Yair Netanyahu was becoming consumed by the conviction that Elovitch and his wife, Iris, who personally took control of the Walla website’s coverage of the Netanyahu family, were double crossing his father.
Netanyahu’s professional advisers disagreed, and Hefetz himself said he believed the Elovichs were doing everything possible to bend the website they owned into a sort of Pravda, a news website that used its “prestige and reputation for credibility” to tilt the scales in Netanyahu’s favor.
According to Monday’s testimony, Elovitch, unnerved by Yair Netanyahu’s accusations, asked Hefetz, “Don’t they understand we’ve given them the website?” The website, Hefetz said, was “a gift” to the Netanyahus.
But nothing would satisfy young Yair, whose influence during this period was mounting in Netanyahu’s inner circle, according to Hefetz, and causing friction that distracted his father from doing the work of the state for hours on end, “often daily, never less than weekly.”
“Netanyahu had the most control [in Walla],” Hefetz said, portraying Netanyahu as something like the leader of an underground comms shop. “In Walla, he could decide what the headline would be, where it would be on the homepage. Even among the very, very supportive media, he didn’t have that extent of control.”
“At least since 2009,” Hefetz testified, noting the date in which Netanyahu’s long term in office began, “his management, control of, and formulations for all interactions with any sort of media has been absolute. His level of control over media matters isn’t high—it is complete and total. It is absolute, much more than what is publicly known.”
“An enormous about of his time is devoted to this,” Hefetz continued. “Let me clarify that didn't measure his time, but in my opinion, [media] is the number one thing that occupies him.”
Netanyahu was present for most of his former top aide’s testimony, made up and camera-ready, wearing the classic Trump ensemble of boxy blue suit and bright red tie. His personal entourage has shrunk since his days in high office, with the phalanx of bodyguards and aides-de-camp who once surrounded him gone. The crowds he and Yair, who is now 30, have summoned to the streets to rebuke Israel’s judiciary, which they claim is engaged in a “coup d’etat,” have by and large failed to materialize.
A handful of Likud legislators attended the dramatic session in Jerusalem District Court Judge Rivka Friedman-Feldman’s small courtroom while, across town, in the Israeli parliament, the new government led by former Netanyahu minister Naftali Bennett presented a bill which would limit prime ministerial terms to eight years.
“Hefetz isn’t just one of the super-powerful,” said Shelly Yechimovich, a former Labor Party leader who was once the subject of threats from Hefetz, and now hosts a radio news program. “People trembled when they heard his name.”
Hefetz’s intimate knowledge of the workings of Netanyahu’s inner circle has made his testimony the most avidly anticipated among the hundreds of listed witnesses in Netanyahu’s trial, which is expected to last years.