A one-time confidant to Benjamin Netanyahu has begun testifying against him in the former Israeli prime minister’s corruption trial in Jerusalem.
Nir Hefetz, a former spokesperson for Netanyahu, is a key prosecution witness expected to deliver critical testimony in the trial, which revolves around accusations that Netanyahu committed fraud and 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 spokesperson for Netanyahu’s government, and in 2014 became the Netanyahu family’s spokesperson and adviser. In 2018, after he was arrested in connection with one of Netanyahu’s corruption cases, Hefetz signed a state witness deal and provided investigators with recordings of conversations with Netanyahu and his family.
His testimony was delayed by a week after Netanyahu’s defence lawyers 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.
Netanyahu appeared at Jerusalem district court on Monday morning flanked by fellow Likud party politicians.
He is the defendant in three separate cases. The first alleges he 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 4,000, alleges Netanyahu promoted legislation worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the owner of the Israeli telecom company Bezeq in exchange for positive coverage on its Walla news site.
In his opening testimony, Hefetz said Netanyahu was a “control freak” when it came to his public image, and that “his control over everything relating to media matters and in his social media channels could not be higher”.
The former prime minister long rejected calls to step down from the country’s leadership after he was indicted in 2019. He used his 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 Israel was embroiled in a two year-long political crisis that included four repeated elections, with voters deadlocked over Netanyahu’s leadership and indictment. The trial is expected to take years.
Earlier this year, Netanyahu and his Likud party were ousted from power after a coalition united in opposition to the prime minister formed a government.