The former CEO of the Walla news site on Monday continued his key testimony in one of the cases against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, providing further information on the premier’s alleged heavy involvement in the editorial process around 2015.
At the Jerusalem District Court, Ilan Yeshua recounted an interview with Netanyahu ahead of that year’s election that was handed over for the prime minister to make edits to at his request.
He said after the interview, conducted by Dov Gilhar about a week before the March vote, Yeshua was told Netanyahu was very angry, that the interview had been hostile, that he was not allowed to complete his answers, and that agreements reached ahead of the interview had not been honored.
“Our team denied any agreement,” Yeshua said. “There was very heavy pressure… it came from all directions, there was a demand not to publish it and to do an additional interview.”
He was contacted on the matter by multiple emissaries, including Walla owner Shaul Elovitch, and Netanyahu’s associates Nir Hefetz and Ze’ev Rubinstein.
He said that eventually the interview was sent to Hefetz, without the knowledge of the newsroom or the interviewer. Hefetz later sent it back with the desired amendments. Yeshua said he made Hefetz swear not to tell anyone, “as it’s not proper to let an interview subject fix and edit his own interview… If the newsroom had found out, it would have been outraged. It’s not a reasonable thing.”
Prosecutors shared a message Elovitch at one point sent Yeshua ahead of the election, stating: “Enough of Bougie Herzog… I’m having difficulties with the ‘big guy’ in my affairs all day long.” Isaac “Bougie” Herzog was, at the time, the leader of the Zionist Union, an alliance of the Labor and Hatnua parties that was Netanyahu’s chief rival in that election.
Asked to explain the message, Yeshua said Elovitch was asking to give Netanyahu’s rival less attention. The “big guy” was Netanyahu, he said, and the affairs Elovitch was referring to were matters relating to his Bezeq company.
In the case, Netanyahu is alleged to have used his powers when he served as both premier and communications minister from 2014 to 2017 to illicitly benefit telecommunications magnate Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of Bezeq, in exchange for positive coverage of the prime minister and his family by Elovitch-owned Walla.
Yeshua said that, after the election, “Shaul mentioned that Sara thanked Iris [Elovitch] very much for the help they had provided. There were comments to the effect, that we gave him the election.”
He also mentioned an incident in which Ze’ev Rubinstein asked him to cover a Fox News report that was critical of then-US president Barack Obama, who was at odds with Netanyahu over the Iran nuclear deal.
“I’m caressing Ze’ev’s request,” read a message from Yeshua to Elovitch that was shared with the court. Yeshua explained that “caressing” was code for positive coverage. “We need to give both things, a stick and a carrot; they mustn’t think we’re in their pocket,” the message added.
Yeshua told the court that this was part of an ongoing attempt on his part to convince Elovitch of the need to enable fairer reporting.
However, he stressed, “It wasn’t possible to have a dialogue. Any negative item ended up leading to an outburst” from Netanyahu’s circle. “My demands were not accepted by Elovitch.”
Yeshua recounted last week how he was repeatedly instructed by his bosses and people close to Netanyahu to skew the news site, Israel’s second-largest, toward positive coverage of the premier and criticism of his rivals — and said he believed those instructions were part of a tradeoff deal between Netanyahu and the site’s owners.
Yeshua also detailed how he was asked to be part of a coverup effort to hide the alleged quid pro quo deal. The testimony was heard, despite efforts by Netanyahu’s lawyers to disqualify parts of it.
The alleged transaction goes to the heart of Case 4000, the most serious of the three cases against Netanyahu, in which he is charged with bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. Netanyahu has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
The prime minister was briefly at the court at the start of last week to hear the chief prosecutor’s opening statement, but has not been present since.
Elovitch and his wife Iris also face bribery charges in Case 4000. Other Bezeq officials were indicted in related, but separate, cases last year.
Netanyahu’s defense team has repeatedly sought to delay the trial and discredit investigators and the prosecution. The High Court of Justice partially accepted an appeal filed by his team on Sunday that demanded they receive additional materials related to the investigations of the premier.
Some materials that had not been delivered to the defense team until now will be transferred to its members as a result of the appeal.
Among those materials is testimony given to police by journalist Ben Caspit, Ynet reported, without specifying which of the three cases against the premier the testimony related to. Caspit has written a biography of Netanyahu, been sued by the premier over his reporting on his legal cases, and been targeted by Netanyahu online.
The trial is scheduled to continue from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, for at least the next few weeks.