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Israel: Netanyahu is media 'control freak', says ex-aide during corruption trial

The former spokesperson testifies against the ex-prime minister in a Jerusalem courtroom on Monday
Former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaves a Jerusalem court house, 16 November 2021 (AFP)

Israel's opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu faced a key prosecution witness in court, where he stood trial on Monday over corruption charges during his tenure as prime minister.

Netanyahu had remained in power for 12 consecutive years and was unseated from Israel's premier position in June by a government formed by Yair Lapid and led by Naftali Bennett.

In January 2020, an Israeli court indicted him in three cases involving bribery, fraud and breach of trust. He denied any wrongdoing and called the charges against him a "witchhunt".

On Monday, Netanyahu was tried in Case 4000, also known as the Bezeq-Walla affair.

Netanyahu, who also headed the ministry of communication during his time as prime minister, is accused of receiving bribes in the form of favourite media coverage of him and his family, from Shaul Elovitch, the ex-owner of the communication conglomerate Bezeq, which owns Walla news network.

He also allegedly received cigars and champagne, and in return, Netanyahu is accused of awarding Bezeq "regulatory favours".

'Beyond a control freak'

Netanyahu walked into the Jerusalem district courtroom wearing a black mask on Monday, to hear the testimony of  Nir Hefetz, his ex-aide who is now a state critic.

Hefetz and Elovitch, the controlling shareholders of Bezeq, were both former spokespeople for Netanyahu.

Hefetz told the court that, "Netanyahu spends at least as much of his time on media as he spends on security matters, including on matters an outsider would consider nonsense."

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He added that Netanyahu was "way beyond a control freak" regarding media coverage.

In 2015, Netanyahu approved a $271m deal in which Bezeq took complete control of Yes, a prominent cable company that offered TV, phone and internet services to Israelis.

Hefetz, who will provide testimony in other corruption cases hanging over Netanyahu in the upcoming weeks, told the court that Elovitch asked Netanyahu that the merging deal should happen before the 2015 election.

Hefetz said that Elovitch gave him a document to pass on to Netanyahu regarding the issue, which the latter shredded.

"[Netanyhau] took the pages and read to the end... He took out a staple, shredded the document and called his secretary and told her to set a meeting with Elovitch," Hefetz said according to Haaretz.

Netanyahu, 72, made no comments to reporters. His supporters, known as the Bibists, had flooded the court corridors facing off with a group of anti-Netanyahu protesters.