The Jerusalem District Court on Wednesday heard the first recordings of Benjamin Netanyahu in the ongoing trial of the former prime minister, as tapes of the Netanyahu family made by his one-time close aide turned state’s witness were played in the courtroom.
Two recordings of conversations between Nir Hefetz and Yair Netanyahu, in which the prime minister could be heard in the background, were played by the prosecution to bolster the claim that the Netanyahus were directly involved in directing how the media covered them.
Hefetz’s testimony Wednesday, his third successive day taking the stand, related to Case 4000, in which Netanyahu is alleged to have worked to illicitly and lucratively benefit the business interests of Bezeq’s controlling shareholder, Shaul Elovitch, in exchange for positive coverage on Walla, a news site owned by Elovitch.
In one recording played before the court, Benjamin and Yair Netanyahu can be heard ordering Hefetz to interfere in the coverage of the Netanyahus on the Walla news site.
“Go straight to Shaul. Don’t bother with the CEO [of Walla],” Yair Netanyahu says. “Should I call him myself and tell him?”
In another recording, the former prime minister can be heard telling Hefetz to “get Shaul involved, now!”
Netanyahu — who is a defendant along with Elovitch and his wife, Iris — is accused of abusing his powers when he served as both prime minister and communications minister from 2014 to 2017, and is charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in the case. He also stands accused of fraud and breach of trust in another two cases, but claims that the allegations against him were fabricated by the police and prosecution, and denies any wrongdoing.
The former prime minister was not present in the courtroom Wednesday. On Monday, he appeared in court with a number of political allies as a small group of supporters rallied outside.
Hefetz has provided prosecutors with key information as an interlocutor between Netanyahu and Bezeq’s Elovitch. He left a long career in journalism in 2009 to work as a spokesman for Netanyahu’s government, and, in 2014, became the Netanyahu family’s spokesman and adviser.
In 2018, after he was arrested in connection with one of Netanyahu’s corruption cases, Hefetz signed a state’s witness deal and provided investigators with recordings of conversations with Netanyahu and his family.
Hefetz testified to making thousands of recordings of conversations during his years working with the Netanyahus. But as the first of them was played before the court on Wednesday, Hefetz made clear that he never intended to record the prime minister.
“I did not consciously record a conversation with the prime minister,” Hefetz said, claiming that an app on his phone automatically recorded all conversations.
“When there are recordings of this kind, by accident, I never listened to them. I probably recorded something else and [the app] stayed on, but I never sat with Netanyahu and consciously pressed the recording device,” he claimed.
On Tuesday, Hefetz testified that he, Yair Netanyahu and the former prime minister’s wife Sara Netanyahu were involved in pushing the Elovitches and others to wipe incriminating text messages from their phones, but said Benjamin Netanyahu was likely unaware.
He also told the court that Sara Netanyahu, and not the former prime minister, had threatened to use government regulatory powers as leverage to force changes to Walla news coverage.
Hefetz’s first day of testimony, Monday, focused on the alleged favors Netanyahu granted to Bezeq, as well as links between the regulatory benefits and the positive media coverage.
Hefetz highlighted the Netanyahu family’s “obsession” with the media, saying that 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.”
The former prime minister’s wife has often been depicted unflatteringly in the media for alleged abusive conduct toward staff.
Hefetz said that Elovitch granted the Netanyahus “the highest level of control” over the Walla site, including “what would be on the homepage and what the headline would be.”