The star prosecution witness in the corruption trial of the former Israel prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has described the veteran politician as a “control freak” obsessed with his image in the press.
The long-awaited testimony of the former Netanyahu spokesman Nir Hefetz came in a Jerusalem courtroom where the 72-year-old is on trial accused of trading preferential treatment for a major Israeli telecom company in exchange for positive articles on its Walla news site.
Netanyahu is a defendant in three separate cases. The first alleges that he received gifts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars from wealthy friends and the second also involves claims of soliciting favourable coverage.
Hefetz is giving evidence in the so-called Case 4000, where Netanyahu is accused of abusing his powers when he served as both prime minister and communications minister from 2014-17, allegations he denies.
His testimony was delayed by a week after Netanyahu’s defence attorneys requested time to review new evidence. The information presented last week alleged that Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, had accepted an expensive bracelet as a gift from two billionaire friends, the Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and the Australian billionaire James Packer.
In his evidence, Hefetz described Netanyahu as “way beyond a control freak” obsessed with every detail of the media’s coverage of him – to the point of distracting from other issues.
Hefetz left a career in journalism in 2009 to work as an aide for Netanyahu’s government and in 2014 became the Netanyahu family’s spokesman and adviser.
However, in 2018 he signed a deal to turn state witness and provide investigators recordings of conversations with Netanyahu and his family after his own arrest.
Delivering his evidence in front of Netanyahu, Hefetz testified how he provided a backchannel for a prominent media tycoon to Netanyahu as part of the alleged bribery scheme.
Hefetz described how Shaul Elovitch, the wealthy owner of the telecom firm Bezeq, had delivered a list of preferred candidates for the role of communications minister to Netanyahu at a time when Bezeq was seeking regulatory approval for a mooted merger with the popular Yes satellite channel.
“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,” Hefetz said. Ultimately Netanyahu took on the portfolio.
The former aide also described a backchannel between Netanyahu and Elovitch over the proposed merger in which he was used as a conduit to deliver messages from the tycoon, some of which Hefetz said were shredded by Netanyahu.
“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. “[Netanyahu] 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.”
The former prime minister long rejected calls to step down from the country’s leadership after he was indicted in 2019.
He used the podium as prime minister to repeatedly lash out at law enforcement, the media and the courts for launching a “witch-hunt” against him.
His trial formally began in 2020, while the country was embroiled in a two-year-long political crisis in which there were four elections, with voters deadlocked over Netanyahu’s leadership and indictment. The trial is expected to take years.
Earlier this year Netanyahu and his long-ruling Likud party were ousted from power after a coalition united in their opposition to the long-serving prime minister formed a government.