Defendants in Netanyahu graft case oppose further questioning of key witness

Shaul and Iris Elovitch ask Jerusalem District Court to prevent examination of former Walla news editor Avi Alkalay, in Bezeq-Walla bribery trial

Israeli businessman Shaul Elovitch and his wife, Iris, at the District Court in Jerusalem, April 6, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel / Flash90)
Israeli businessman Shaul Elovitch and his wife, Iris, at the District Court in Jerusalem, April 6, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel / Flash90)

Lawyers for Bezeq telecom owner Shaul Elovitch and his wife Iris Elovitch asked the Jerusalem District Court on Monday to prevent prosecutors from further questioning a key witness in a bribery case in which former premier Benjamin Netanyahu is also on trial.

On Sunday, prosecutors announced that former Walla news editor Avi Alkalay had been summoned for questioning regarding his correspondence with the website’s ex-CEO, Ilan Yeshua, who was testifying in the case, which involves an alleged scheme trading positive news coverage for regulatory favors. The correspondence was found on Yeshua’s phone.

“Either the prosecution asks to stop the trial proceedings to conduct a complete investigation, with all the relevant investigatory material, or it refrains from exceptional one-sided moves,” the lawyers said in a petition to the court, according to Hebrew media reports.

Alkalay is also to be called as a witness in the Bezeq-Walla alleged bribery case, known as Case 4000, in which Netanyahu is alleged to have abused 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 Iris were also charged with bribery. All three defendants deny wrongdoing.

According to prosecutors, the correspondence with Yeshua involves “issues that Alkalay addressed in his interrogation.” Prosecutors also said that the questioning would not impact the timing of the trial, noting that Alkalay is not set to testify for some time.

Avi Alkalay, former editor at Walla news, arrives for a hearing at the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court on March 10, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The Netanyahu trial is set to resume on September 13, following 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.

Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seen outside a court hearing at the District Court in Jerusalem on April 5, 2021. (Oren Ben Hakoon/POOL)

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. The searches are to be conducted based on relevant keywords, which can also be suggested by the defense.

The volume of material involved adds up to hundreds of thousands of messages, including emails and some 150,000 texts sent via WhatsApp, Channel 13 News reported.

The defense has been trying to show that, contrary to his testimony, Yeshua’s orders to give certain stories greater or less visibility were commonplace, not only when it came to Netanyahu, but also to other politicians, businessmen, and companies, and were sometimes unrelated to the Elovitches.

Separately on Sunday, a judge ruled that Yair Netanyahu must immediately pay Alkalay the settlement ordered by a court earlier this year, after the prime minister’s son lost a libel case against the witness. Alkalay sued Netanyahu over posts he shared on social media claiming the editor was “a planted mole” working with the state prosecution against his father. The younger Netanyahu first filed an appeal and then filed a petition to delay paying the fine, saying he lacked the funds, but both were rejected by the court.

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