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Netanyahu trial

Ex-news site CEO: I was told to ax Sara Netanyahu item or I’d sink business deal

Wrapping up 1st week of testimony in PM’s trial, Ilan Yeshua says Walla owner Elovitch angrily warned him bad press for PM’s wife would wreck his bid to buy TV provider’s shares

Former Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua at the Jerusalem District Court for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's corruption trial, April 7, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Former Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua at the Jerusalem District Court for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's corruption trial, April 7, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The first week of witness testimony in Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial wrapped up Wednesday, with former Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua telling the court he was forced to take down a story from the news outlet about the prime minister’s wife, Sara, because it could have harmed his employer’s chances at receiving a regulatory favor from the premier.

Yeshua is a key witness in Case 4000, where the prime minister is accused of establishing an illegal quid pro quo with the owners of the Walla news website in which they gave him favorable coverage and he granted them regulatory favors.

The prosecution showed text messages sent to Yeshua from Shaul Elovitch, who controlled Walla through his telecommunications firm Bezeq, in which he was told, “Take [the article] down now. It’ll prevent me from getting permission for Yes. I’ll kill you.”

Yeshua explained that Elovitch was referring to a regulatory decision that he was waiting for from Netanyahu that would allow his company to purchase shares in the Yes television service provider. “At least that’s what I understood,” he added.

The Bezeq-Yes deal, which went ahead in 2015, was worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Elovitch, according to the state prosecution, and Netanyahu’s alleged intervention to approve it as communications minister was part of his illicit quid pro quid arrangement with Elovitch, according to the charges, under which Walla’s content was skewed to the prime minister’s requirements and he advanced Elovitch’s business interests.

The article Yeshua was ordered to take down was about a scandal at the time involving Sara Netanyahu and her treatment of a caretaker in the Prime Minister’s Residence.

Prosecutor Yehudit Tirosh asked how Yeshua understood Elovitch’s message, “I’ll kill you.”

“[It showed] the pressure he was under from the prime minister because of the article about Sara,” Yeshua said.

Sara Netanyahu, wife of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, in Jerusalem, on December 24, 2020 (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

The prosecution showed additional messages between Yeshua and his superiors, showing that the article had been taken off the homepage and removed from the website’s Facebook page, but that he was reprimanded for not removing the story from the outlet’s list of recent push notifications.

“I was reprimanded because I didn’t clean it up all the way,” Yeshua said.

In a text conversation from January 31, 2015, that prosecutors presented to the Jerusalem District Court, Elovitch asked Yeshua: “You don’t think we overdid it with Tzipi [Livni]?” the then-No. 2 in the Zionist Union party, which was challenging Netanyahu’s Likud in the March 2015 elections.

Tzipi Livni speaks at a conference in Jerusalem on March 11, 2019 (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Elovitch was apparently referring to an article published on Walla (Hebrew) that was headlined with a quote by Livni saying Netanyahu spent more on alcohol in a month than the monthly minimum wage.

Pushing back, Yeshua told Elovitch that Walla also had to quote other party leaders besides Netanyahu, while noting the article was not at the top of the site.

“I don’t need Tzipi’s signature this week,” Elovitch responded.

He also told Yeshua: “It’s worth distinguishing between the most important thing and what is secondary. The really important things can be harmed by ego, self-righteousness and stupidity.”

In another text exchange, Elovitch told Yeshua to “act cautiously with Raviv Drucker, we’re in money time with him.” Asked to explain what the message meant, Yeshua said Drucker, an investigative journalist, had done a report at the time on Netanyahu or his family.

“I answered that of course we will be cautious about doing a follow-up,” Yeshua said.

He said Elovitch’s words “with him” referred to Netanyahu and that by “money time,” he meant “money time literally.”

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

Yeshua also told the Jerusalem District Court that his litmus test for whether or not a topic related to Netanyahu could be published on his website was whether or not it appeared in the Israel Hayom tabloid, which is widely seen as overwhelmingly supportive of the premier.

“If it was published in Israel Hayom, it became ‘kosher,’” Yeshua said. “It can’t be so bad for it to be published by us. I need to be holier than the pope?”

Earlier Wednesday, Yeshua said it was the “norm” for nominees for senior positions at Walla, including editor-in-chief, to be examined and approved by Elovitch and the prime minister’s associates Ran Baratz and Nir Hefetz. He also testified that he had been told Walla would lose billions of shekels if its coverage was hostile to Netanyahu.

On Monday, Yeshua recounted 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.

The next day, Tuesday, Yeshua 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.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for the first session of the evidentiary stage of his trial at the Jerusalem District Court on April 5, 2021. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Pool)

Netanyahu allegedly 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 the Elovitch-owned Walla news site. Elovitch and his wife Iris also face bribery charges in Case 4000. Other Bezeq officials were indicted in related, but separate, cases last year.

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.

Netanyahu was required to appear in court Monday at the start of the evidence phase, but was granted permission to leave early.

He exited shortly after lead state prosecutor Liat Ben-Ari finished a 20-minute speech in which she laid out the criminal charges against him, describing the ways in which the prime minister allegedly abused the powers of his office.

Prosecutor Liat Ben-Ari at the Jerusalem District Court for a hearing in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial, April 7, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Stressing that “every person is equal before the law,” Ben-Ari said that “the case before the honorable court today is a significant and severe case of governmental corruption.” The prime minister, she argued, used the “immense power of his office” to advance “his personal desires.”

Later Monday, Netanyahu lashed out at state prosecutors after the first day of testimony in his corruption trial, accusing them of “hypocrisy” and of leading a “witch hunt” against him. He said the investigation and prosecution constitute an effort by police and prosecutors to “trample democracy” in Israel and subvert the will of the electorate.

In response, senior Justice Ministry and police officials anonymously said Netanyahu’s claims were false, accused him of seeking to intimidate the court, and warned his allegations placed prosecutors in danger.

Beyond the Walla case, Netanyahu also faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in Case 1000 and in Case 2000.

Case 1000 involves suspicions Netanyahu illicitly accepted some $200,000 in gifts such as cigars and champagne from two billionaires — Hollywood-based Israeli movie mogul Arnon Milchan and Australian magnate James Packer.

In Case 2000, Netanyahu is accused of attempting to reach a quid pro quo with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes for positive media coverage in exchange for legislation weakening rival newspaper Israel Hayom. Mozes was charged with bribery in the case.

Netanyahu denies wrongdoing in all of the cases.

Michael Bachner contributed to this report.

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