Shaul Elovitch, the former owner of the Walla news site, said several years ago that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his aides were behaving like “criminals” when intervening in the outlet’s coverage, former Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua testified Monday during his cross-examination in the graft trial against the premier.
Yeshua is a key witness in Case 4000, in which Netanyahu is alleged to have abused his powers when he served as both premier and communications minister from 2014 to 2017, in order to illicitly and lucratively affect the business interests of Bezeq’s controlling shareholder, Elovitch. In exchange, Elovitch allegedly provided Netanyahu and his family with positive coverage on Walla.
Netanyahu faces charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in the case, while Elovitch and his wife, Iris, were charged with bribery. All three defendants deny wrongdoing.
On Monday, Yeshua was asked by Iris Elovitch’s attorney, Michal Rosen-Ozer, about a series of articles published at the time about Meni Naftali, an ex-caretaker at the prime minister’s official residence who has been fiercely critical of Netanyahu and his wife, Sara.
“On Meni Naftali, there was a series of stories that I think were all illegitimate,” Yeshua told the Jerusalem District Court.
“When it came up, Shaul [Elovitch] told me it was behavior that resembled criminals. He knew the newsroom wasn’t fanatical and that the prime minister and his emissaries were acting like criminals. It isn’t easy to admit that our country has been hijacked by criminals,” Yeshua said.
Also during the hearing, Rosen-Ozer attempted to prove that the newsroom was trying to push a staunch anti-Netanyahu stance, arguing that the intervention in the coverage was justified.
“That’s not true,” Yeshua answered. “The newsroom was under continuous abuse, and tried to catch a breath amid non-stop pressure.”
The defense has been trying to show that as opposed to what Yeshua has been arguing, his orders to give certain stories more or less visibility came in regard to not only Netanyahu but other politicians, businessmen and companies as well, and sometimes were unrelated to the Elovitches.
Last week, Yeshua said that the owners employed “brutal and unequivocal pressure” and that “every day they admonished me, shouted and screamed.”
Rosen-Ozer at the time argued that Yeshua was presenting himself as a “battered woman” while in reality he had been “more like an abusive man.”
Yeshua’s cross-examination is expected to go on for several more weeks, before the trial will begin hearing other witnesses.
On the first day of the cross-examination several weeks ago, Yeshua said editors were ordered to remove stories from the site about families bereaved in the 2014 Gaza war because the premier didn’t like them.
During questioning about his own political views, Yeshua admitted he told staff members that “Bibi is destroying the Zionist enterprise” and had said that the prime minister was “a disaster for the country.”
Yeshua has also said that he received “crazy” requests from the prime minister’s wife, in a situation he likened to a “Byzantine court.”
During his earlier testimony, Yeshua described 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 an effort to cover up the alleged quid pro quo deal. The testimony was heard despite efforts by Netanyahu’s lawyers to disqualify parts of it.
In his testimony, Yeshua also described how the prime minister’s son Yair and his wife, Sara, would interfere in the running of Walla.
Netanyahu himself has only been in the courthouse for two of the hearings.
In addition to the charges in Case 4000, Netanyahu is charged with fraud and breach of trust in two other cases, one of which also involves suspicions of trading regulatory favors for positive media coverage.