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Ex-Netanyahu aide: Bezeq owner gave list of candidates for communications minister

Hefetz says Netanyahu himself was Elovitch’s top choice, describes how he conveyed messages from mogul to then-PM; prosecutors clarify Hefetz not sent to talk to ministry director.

Nir Hefetz, a former aide and confidant to then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, testified Monday that he passed information from Bezeq owner Shaul Elovitch to the then-premier, with the telecom mogul providing input on who should serve as communications minister.

He said that Elovitch was very concerned about the appointment of a new communications minister in 2014 after Gilad Erdan moved to a new position.

Elovitch’s interest in who would hold the portfolio was due to a potential merger deal between his Bezeq company and the YES satellite company, which would net the telecommunications mogul millions of shekels and which would need ministry approval.

The communications portfolio was ultimately taken on by Netanyahu himself, but Hefetz said Elovitch had provided a list of potential candidates he saw fit, with the premier his preferred choice.

“Elovitch actually gave a list and said that the number one choice for who would serve as communications minister was that Netanyahu would hold the position, with Tzachi Hanegbi as second choice and Yuval Steinitz third. He also said he had heard of Ofir Akunis, but did not know if it was good for him or not,” Hefetz said, referring to Likud lawmakers.

Hefetz was testifying in Case 4000, in which Netanyahu is alleged to have worked to illicitly and lucratively benefit the business interests of Bezeq’s controlling shareholder, Elovitch, in exchange for positive coverage on Walla, the Elovitch-owned news website. Netanyahu is accused of abusing his powers when he served as both prime minister and communications minister from 2014 to 2017. He denies all the charges against him.

Hefetz also said that on one occasion, Elovitch asked him to pass some papers to Netanyahu and convey the message that the merger between Bezeq and Yes needed to be signed before the election due to the expiration of the Antitrust Authority’s decision to approve it.

“I did not want to do that. I did not think the message should be conveyed; I did not really understand the regulatory issues,” Hefetz recalled, saying Elovitch reassured him the information in the papers was publicly available on Google.

“At the first opportunity I had, a day or two later, I explained Elovitch’s message to him in the study at [the Prime Minister’s Residence],” Hefetz said, referring to Netanyahu.

“He took the pages, read them and then shredded them. He picked up the phone to the secretary and asked for an appointment to be made with Elovitch.”

Hefetz said he was completely sure that Netanyahu was aware of the conversations he was having with the Bezeq owner.

“One hundred percent, I remember conveying Elovitch’s messages, as I perceived them to be, to Netanyahu,” Hefetz said. “The conversation I had with Elovitch did not take place behind Netanyahu’s back.”

Hefetz also told the court that Netanyahu’s attitude toward the media was to “contact the owner” and go straight to the top.

In a key event on Monday, prosecutors updated Netanyahu’s defense that Hefetz had “clarified” that he not been sent by Netanyahu to speak with then-Communications Ministry director general Shlomo Filber about regulations concerning Bezeq. Hefetz had previously apparently told investigators that he had. The apparent backtrack was made in a document submitted to the court after Hefetz held a refresher conversation with prosecutors ahead of his testimony. The Ynet news site said Netanyahu’s defense called the development a sign “the case was collapsing.”

Netanyahu was making just his fourth courtroom appearance since his corruption trial began a year and a half ago.

Hefetz began his testimony by detailing his career and explaining how he dealt with matters relating to both the Likud party, which Netanyahu heads, and the private affairs of the Netanyahus.

“Netanyahu’s preoccupation with issues relating to the media was almost the same as with security matters,” Hefetz said.

“Netanyahu is much more than a control freak,” he said. “When it came to matters of the media, he wants to know everything — right down to the remote details.”

“Caring for the Netanyahu family was part of the job description,” Hefetz said, according to Channel 13 news. “I saw this as a necessary request because the media’s preoccupation with the family greatly interfered with Netanyahu running the country.”

Netanyahu and Hefetz appeared to make deliberate efforts to avoid eye contact with each other, reporters in the courtroom said.

Netanyahu was accompanied in court by Likud MKs Amir Ohana, Galit Distel Atbaryan and Shlomo Karhi. A small group of the former premier’s supporters rallied outside the courthouse.

Hefetz is providing testimony in Case 4000 — one of three against the former premier. Netanyahu, who is charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in this case, and fraud and breach of trust in the other two, says the cases against him were fabricated by the police and prosecution and denies any wrongdoing.

Hefetz was set to have taken the stand last week, but his testimony was delayed by a defense request to provide time for the examination of new revelations in the case.

Ahead of the start of the testimony, Netanyahu refused to answer questions from journalists about that new evidence, regarding further expensive gifts that the former prime minister’s family allegedly received illicitly from wealthy benefactors, and about why at the time a diamond bracelet was given to Sara Netanyahu, he had referred to it as “Romanian.”

There have been some accusations that he may have been using the descriptor as a pejorative term.

Hefetz is expected to testify to the deep involvement of the ex-premier’s wife and son in the country’s media landscape while Netanyahu was in office.

Hefetz recently sat down with state prosecutors to prepare for his testimony and some details from the meeting were leaked to Channel 13 last week.

The former Netanyahu aide will testify that the former premier’s wife Sara was involved in the hiring of spokespeople in the Prime Minister’s Office, according to the transcripts.

Hefetz will also highlight the family’s “obsession” with the media, particularly the Walla news site at the center of Case 4000.

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 prime minister’s wife has often been depicted unflatteringly in the media for alleged abusive conduct toward staff.

Hefetz will testify that Netanyahu was aware that some of his aides, namely Jonathan Urich and Topaz Luk, were tasked with matters relating to defending Sara in the public sphere.

He also says Netanyahu and his wife were heavily involved, and even initiated, some of the hit-pieces against the former caretaker of the Prime Minister’s Residence, Meni Naftali, after the latter accused the couple of excessive spending and misuse of public funds.

The former aide will also reveal the extent of the Netanyahu family’s involvement in salvaging the hard-right Channel 20 news outlet, which faced collapse in the previous decade.

Hefetz says Netanyahu’s son Yair sought to involve himself in the hiring of reporters at the network, sending a list of names that the channel should pick from. When the candidates were not chosen, Yair sat down with the network’s executives to voice his frustration, Hefetz says.

He also will testify that Yair and Sara Netanyahu were involved in the hiring of Eran Tiefenbrunn as an editor at Walla.

Sara Netanyahu conditioned her consent to Tiefenbrunn’s hiring on the latter’s agreement to write columns against Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Noni Mozes — who is facing charges in a second case against Netanyahu — “so that he would be savaged,” Hefetz told prosecutors.

Meanwhile, the defense is expected to play excerpts from videotapes made during Hefetz’s interrogation by police and will argue that Hefetz was illegally pressured into turning state witness and his testimony is invalid, the Kan public broadcaster reported Sunday.

With regards to allegations of wrongdoing by his interrogators during his imprisonment and questioning, Hefetz told prosecutors that he planned to sue the state.

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 Bezeq’s Elovitch.

Hefetz made thousands of recordings of conversations during his years working with the Netanyahus.

Last week Hefetz filed a police complaint after a supporter of the former prime minister was heard making death threats against him outside the courthouse.

The man in question could be heard shouting “Nir Hefetz should die, Nir Hefetz should not live” into a megaphone at a rally outside the Jerusalem District Court, where Hefetz had been set to testify in the case against Netanyahu, who also appeared in court that day.

Source: TOI

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