Middle East

Netanyahu appears in court as ex-aide prepares to take stand

JERUSALEM (AP) — Benjamin Netanyahu appeared in court for the first time in over half a year on Tuesday as a one-time confidant prepared to take the stand against him in a high-profile corruption case against the former Israeli prime minister.

Nir Hefetz, a former Netanyahu aide, is a star prosecution witness in the case against Netanyahu, with his close proximity to the Netanyahu during several years in office a key part of the evidence. Hefetz left a long career in journalism in 2009 to work as a spokesman for Netanyahu’s government, then in 2014 became the Netanyahu family’s spokesman and adviser.

Netanyahu entered the courtroom Tuesday accompanied by a lawyer, his younger son, Avner, and a pair of supporters from his Likud party. The security presence around the building was much smaller than past sessions, when Netanyahu was the prime minister.

His lawyers immediately asked that Tuesday’s session be delayed following reports that another witness had come forward with new evidence alleging 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’s lawyers argued that the former prime minister and his wife were caught off-guard by the allegations and had the right to study the evidence before Hefetz took the stand.

Netanyahu has been accused of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in three separate cases.

The first involves Netanyahu allegedly receiving 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 paper’s chief rival. The third one, nicknamed Case 4000, entails Netanyahu allegedly passing 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 2018, after he was arrested by police in connection with Case 4000, Hefetz signed a state’s witness deal and provided investigators with recordings of conversations with Netanyahu and his family. But because of his close connection with the former prime minister, Hefetz’s testimony is likely to be relevant to all three cases.

The former prime minister has denied any wrongdoing. As prime minister, Netanyahu long rejected calls to step down while under indictment, using his position to lash out at law enforcement, the media and the courts.

But Netanyahu failed to win re-election in four consecutive elections, with voters deadlocked over his leadership and trial. Early this year, he was ousted from office after a constellation of rivals managed to cobble together a ruling coalition without his long-dominant Likud party.

He is now opposition leader in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

Netanyahu’s criminal trial began in 2020, while the country was embroiled in a protracted political crisis and dealing with the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Witnesses started taking the stand in April, and proceedings are expected to last several years.

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