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Onetime top aide testifies against Netanyahu in graft trial

March 23, 2022 GMT

JERUSALEM (AP) — A onetime top aide to Benjamin Netanyahu took the stand for the first time Wednesday against the former Israeli prime minister engulfed in corruption charges over a scheme to generate positive news coverage.

Shlomo Filber, the director of the Communications Ministry under Netanyahu and one of two former aides to testify for the prosecution, said Netanyahu wanted him to “mitigate” competition for Israel’s Bezeq telecom company, a move worth hundreds of millions of dollars. In return, Bezeq’s popular news site, Walla, allegedly provided favorable coverage of Netanyahu and his family.

Netanyahu, now opposition leader in Israel’s parliament, denies any wrongdoing and says the charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery amount to a witch hunt. But the case has cast a deep shadow over his family and his legacy as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.

Like the previous aide-turned-state’s witness, Nir Hefetz, Filber described the former Israeli premier as being image-obsessed.

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“Netanyahu is hands-off, lets you do your work, he doesn’t get involved in the micro. Except when it has to do with things that really matter to him -- like media,” Filber testified, with Netanyahu and members of his family a few feet away in the small courtroom. “In those cases I could get five to six calls a day.”

Netanyahu is charged in three separate cases. The first alleges that Netanyahu received gifts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars from wealthy associates.

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.

Israeli media has cast the third case as highly dependent on testimony from Filber, dubbed as “the witness without whom Case 4000 might not exist.”

An emotional Filber told the court Wednesday that it was clear to him that Netanyahu wanted him “not to eliminate competition (for Bezeq) but to mitigate it,” then made a hand gesture that suggested a plane landing, according to a pool report of the court proceedings.

“Elovitch reached out to me and told me he has problems with the ministry, a consultancy that set wrong prices,” Filber said, describing that message as, ”‘Don’t stop competition, but see if you can moderate it.’”

Asked if what Netanyahu asked him would help Elovitch, Filber answered, “Yes,” adding later that there were “50 shades of gray” in how the former premier communicated his request.

Pressed, Filber said he perceived Netanyahu’s instruction as an “action item” which he had to swiftly act on.

Filber’s testimony echoed that of Nir Hefetz, formerly Netanyahu’s family spokesman, as being the main envoy between Netanyahu and Elovitch. Hefetz said 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,” Hefetz said. “I thought the Elovitches were doing a good job.”

Hefetz told the court last year that Netanyahu was a “control freak” when it came to his public image and spent “at least as much as his time on media as he spends on security matters.”