Former Netanyahu aide testifies in ex-PM's corruption trial

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Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, third from left, is flanked by lawyers before testimony by star witness Nir Hefetz, a former aide, in his corruption trial at the District Court in east Jerusalem, Monday, Nov. 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo, Pool)

JERUSALEM – A ex-aide to Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday took the stand in the former Israeli prime minister's corruption trial, describing his boss as a “control freak” who was obsessed with the way he and his family were portrayed in the media.

Nir Hefetz, a former spokesman for Netanyahu, is a key prosecution witness expected to deliver critical testimony in the trial, which revolves around accusations that Netanyahu committed fraud, breach of trust and accepted bribes. The former premier, now opposition leader, denies any wrongdoing.

Hefetz 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.

His testimony was delayed by a week after Netanyahu's defense 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, Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer.

Netanyahu appeared in the Jerusalem District Court Monday morning flanked by fellow Likud party politicians. Hours later, he was given permission to leave the court before the testimony ended.

Netanyahu is charged in three separate cases. The first alleges that Netanyahu received gifts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars from wealthy friends, including Milchan and Packer.

In the second case, Netanyahu is accused of orchestrating positive coverage in a major Israeli paper in exchange for promoting legislation that would have harmed the news outlet's chief rival, a free pro-Netanyahu daily.

The third, nicknamed Case 4000, alleges that Netanyahu promoted legislation worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the owner of Israeli telecom giant Bezeq in exchange for positive coverage on its Walla news site.

In his opening testimony, Hefetz said that Netanyahu was a “control freak” when it came to his public image.

“Netanyahu spends at least as much as his time on media as he spends on security matters, including on matters an outsider would consider nonsense,” Hefetz said.

He also described being the main envoy between Netanyahu and Bezeq owner Shaul Elovitch, and said that Elovitch's wife, Iris, personally took control over the news site.

“Netanyahu had the greatest control over the Walla website, including what the headline would be, where it would be on the home page,” he said. “I thought the Elovitches were doing a good job.”

Hefetz spent most of the day on the stand before the session ended late in the afternoon. His testimony is expected to continue for weeks or even months.

The former prime minister was indicted in 2019, repeatedly rejecting calls to step down. He has accused law enforcement, the media and courts of launching a “witch hunt” against him.

His trial formally began in 2020, while the country was embroiled in a two-year-long political crisis that saw four elections end in deadlock 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.