The trial against Benjamin Netanyahu was renewed Wednesday at the Jerusalem District Court after a two-week break, with the former prime minister’s attorneys attempting to show that changes in the Walla news website’s coverage to suit Netanyahu’s needs weren’t unusual and similar ones were made to please other politicians.
Presented with the new information, a prosecution witness countered that the favors to the other politicians had also been dictated by Netanyahu’s aides.
The hearing discussed the Bezeq-Walla alleged bribery case, known as Case 4000, in which Netanyahu is accused of abusing his powers when he served as both prime minister and communications minister from 2014 to 2017.
Netanyahu is accused of illicitly and lucratively benefiting the business interests of Bezeq telecom’s controlling shareholder, Shaul Elovitch, in exchange for positive coverage on the Bezeq-owned Walla news website.
Netanyahu faces charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust, while Elovitch and his wife have been charged with bribery. All three defendants deny wrongdoing.
During Wednesday’s hearing, Netanyahu’s lawyer Boaz Ben Tzur challenged former Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua, the first witness in the trial, presenting a large volume of correspondence he had around 2012 with the staff of Likud MKs Ofir Akunis and Yuval Steinitz and then-Labor MK Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, allegedly showing he was also trying to curry favor with them.
“Dozens and dozens of officials contacted you,” Ben Tzur told Yeshua, detailing the many examples. “The court will draw conclusions later. The material speaks for itself.”
But Yeshua attempted to convince the court that the new evidence in fact strengthened the prosecutors’ case, rather than undermining it.
He acknowledged that he had at times acted in an improper manner, but argued that the improved coverage was granted to Akunis, Steinitz, and Ben-Eliezer at the orders of Bezeq owner Elovitch due to their closeness to Netanyahu. Akunis and Steinitz are members of Netanyahu’s party who had been involved in communications issues, and the since-deceased Ben-Eliezer had been backed by Netanyahu in the 2014 election for president.
The material presented by Ben Tzur allegedly showed that Walla had provided decidedly positive coverage of Akunis. At the time, the website was lobbying Akunis and other politicians against approving legislation forcing news outlets and other organizations to make their websites accessible to those with disabilities.
Yeshua countered that “it had been discussed that Akunis would be a minister in the Prime Minister’s Office responsible for communications issues. The contact with Akunis and Steinitz wasn’t initiated by myself. Whenever there was such contact it was in accordance with orders by Shaul [Elovitch].”
When Ben Tzur pressed as to whether Yeshua had been comfortable with being involved in such dealings, Yeshua answered: “I may have viewed it as not okay. Sometimes you do improper things. There were many times where I felt uncomfortable.”
Regarding Ben-Eliezer, Yeshua said Elovitch had told him at the time that there were candidates for president backed by Netanyahu who were being “taken down” and whom the premier wanted to defend in the media, including Ben-Eliezer.
“Anyone can see you are making this up,” retorted Ben Tzur.
The previous hearing in the Netanyahu trial was on September 13, which followed a break of several months prompted by a court order that defense attorneys be provided with new evidence gleaned from messages and emails on Yeshua’s phone.
Yeshua is the first, and so far only, witness to give testimony in Netanyahu’s trial.
In June, the Jerusalem District Court judges overseeing the trial granted a request from the defense attorneys to conduct an expanded search of Yeshua’s phone, arguing that they were not given the texts from all relevant conversations discovered on the device during an earlier search.
The judges authorized another search of Yeshua’s phone for any conversations with politicians, businessmen, and others concerning his involvement in news coverage at Walla. These searches are what yielded the new material presented to the court on Wednesday.
Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.