A key witness in investigations into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reportedly threatened to sue Justice Minister Amir Ohana and Netanyahu’s son Yair for breaking a gag order and broadcasting his alleged relationship with a young woman.
A lawyer for Nir Hefetz, a former media adviser for Netanyahu who is now testifying for the state, said he would ask Attorney General Avichai Mandeblit to open a criminal investigation into Ohana, Hebrew-language media reported Thursday.
“We are also reserving the right to act in the civil arena against the minister and someone who made sure to echo his words with amazing coordination,” attorney Ilan Sofer told Channel 12 news, apparently referring to the younger Netanyahu.
On Wednesday, Ohana gave a speech from the Knesset podium during which he railed against what he said was police misconduct in leaning on Hefetz to testify against Netanyahu, revealing details of alleged pressure tactics used by investigators that had been sealed by a court.
Shortly after the speech, Yair Netanyahu, the prime minister’s salty-tongued son, tweeted what Ohana had said, as well as more allegations still under gag order. He later deleted the tweet.
Hefetz is a former Netanyahu spokesman and confidant and a witness in Case 4000 — the most severe of the cases facing the premier — in which Netanyahu is suspected of pushing regulatory decisions benefiting the controlling shareholder of the Bezeq telecommunications group, Shaul Elovitch, in return for ongoing positive news coverage in the Walla news site, which is owned by Bezeq.
On Wednesday and Thursday, Channel 13 news reported on details of Whatsapp messages between Walla editor Ilan Yeshua and Hefetz, and calls between Yeshua and Elovitch, as well as Elovitch’s wife Iris, that showed the site tailoring its reporting to be as palatable to Netanyahu and his wife Sara as possible. The reports showed Hefetz and the Elovitch directly intervening on editorial decisions at the paper and the hiring of journalists in order to be as forgiving toward the prime minister and his family as possible.
Hefetz turned state’s witness after being arrested and questioned over a two-week period, and is believed to have provided prosecutors with key information about the period when he served as an informal interlocutor between Netanyahu and Elovitch and between Netanyahu and Walla.
Breaking the gag order, Ohana described how investigators called in a woman who was not directly connected to Case 4000 for questioning, asked her “invasive and intrusive” questions about her relationship with Hefetz, then engineered an “accidental” meeting between the woman and Hefetz in the hallway.
When the two met, investigators allegedly told Hefetz, according to Ohana, that “we know everything and will drop a bomb on your family.”
Ohana also claimed that Hefetz changed his testimony to match the prosecution’s versions of events after an undocumented conversation with an interrogator.
Law enforcement authorities have denied the claims of wrongdoing and a statement Wednesday by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and Shai Nitzan accused Ohana of misleading the public.
Vague claims about the investigators’ conduct were first reported Tuesday by Channel 12 television news, but details could not be reported by the outlet due to the court-imposed gag order.
Those details became permissible for reporting when Ohana made his comments in the Knesset Wednesday, as Israel’s Basic Laws stipulate that all Knesset plenum debates must be open to the public and their content permitted for publication.
Israeli parliamentarians enjoy immunity from some types of prosecution, and lawmakers in the past have used the Knesset podium to reveal information about gagged subjects.
In 2013, MKs Ahmed Tibi, Zehava Gal-on and others broke military censorship rules during a televised Knesset debate to question why information about a former Israeli spy who had committed suicide in prison was being suppressed.
However, after the incident, the Knesset’s legal adviser wrote an opinion explaining that the immunity might not cover cases where gag orders are broken in a pre-medidated manner. That opinion has never been tested in court.
The immunity also does not cover civil suits and Ohana and Yair Netanyahu could potentially be sued by Hefetz for slander or libel.
During his speech, Ohana attributed his information to unspecified “reports,” and later defended himself by saying the information had already been put out into the public sphere, apparently referring to claims made on social media.
Ohana’s comments were met with immediate condemnation by opposition lawmakers. Responding to the public furor caused by Ohana’s statements, Netanyahu issued a laconic defense of court gag orders that also reiterated the extortion claim.
“Though the case of the extortion of state’s witness Nir Hefetz is extremely serious and should worry every citizen, a court-imposed gag order should be respected,” the prime minister said.
Hefetz lashed Ohana on Wednesday, calling his claims “shameful and disgraceful” for invading his privacy and vowed that the action’s would no go unanswered, in a statement delivered by his attorney Sofer.
Mandelblit, who served as Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary and was appointed by him to the attorney general post in 2016, is widely believed to be planning to formally indict the prime minister on corruption charges in three separate cases in the coming weeks.
In a draft charge sheet issued in February, Mandelblit outlined charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust against the premier in Case 4000, and fraud and breach of trust in two other cases, dubbed by police Case 1000 and Case 2000.
Netanyahu, who denies any wrongdoing, has repeatedly claimed that he is the victim of a witch hunt by the media, the left, police and the state prosecution designed to oust him from power. The claims about Hefetz are thought to be aimed at bolstering the allegations against the prosecution and to cast Hefetz as an unreliable witness.
Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.
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