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Ex-Walla CEO testifies he led a campaign against Rivlin on Netanyahu’s behalf

Ilan Yeshua says PM had a clear interest in Rivlin losing 2014 presidential election; cross-examined by premier’s lawyer, Yeshua admits tilting coverage to benefit Liberman, others

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and President Reuven Rivlin at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, September 25, 2019, when Rivlin tapped Netanyahu to form the next Israeli government. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and President Reuven Rivlin at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, September 25, 2019, when Rivlin tapped Netanyahu to form the next Israeli government. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90

Ilan Yeshua, the former CEO of the Walla news site, testified Wednesday during his cross-examination in the corruption trial of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that his website had conducted a campaign on behalf of the premier aimed at preventing Reuven Rivlin from being elected president in 2014.

Questioned by Netanyahu’s lawyer Boaz Ben Tzur, Yeshua acknowledged that in addition to tilting the website’s coverage to favor Netanyahu in an alleged quid pro quo bribery deal, Walla had also tilted its coverage in favor of Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman.

Yeshua is the first witness to give testimony in Netanyahu’s trial. He 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 telecom’s controlling shareholder Shaul Elovitch. In exchange, Elovitch allegedly provided Netanyahu and his family with positive coverage on the Bezeq-owned 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.

During Wednesday’s hearing, Ben Tzur showed a July 2014 correspondence between Yeshua and lawyer Nir Shalom, then an adviser to ex-Labor MK Dalia Itzik, who had been running for president against Rivlin and several others.

Candidates for Israeli president, L to R: Dalia Dorner, Dan Shechtman, Reuven Rivlin, Dalia Itzik, and Meir Sheetrit. (photo credit: Flash 90)

Shalom was protesting a damaging story that had been published about Itzik and Yeshua said there was “immense pressure” to air investigative reports about Itzik’s alleged misdeeds regarding real estate assets, but that he was resisting that pressure.

While Ben Tzur had been trying to show Walla had altered its coverage to benefit Itzik, Yeshua retorted that it had actually been aimed at benefiting Netanyahu.

“I remember that in 2014 there was a tumultuous campaign for the presidency and the prime minister was immensely invested in it,” he told the Jerusalem District Court. “The prime minister had an interest in who gets elected. We conducted a whole campaign for it not to be Rivlin.”

Ben Tzur then asked how Yeshua knew that was what Netanyahu wanted, and the ex-Walla CEO said it was via briefings by the site’s owner, Shaul Elovitch, who is also accused of bribery in the case, and who said it was at the premier’s request.

Rivlin ended up being elected president, and his successor will be picked next week by the Knesset.

Former Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua is seen on the witness stand at the Jerusalem District Court on May 25, 2021, during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Also during the hearing, Ben Tzur presented a December 2014 correspondence in which Yeshua wrote to an adviser to Liberman to alert him to a favorable headline for the right-wing secularist politician, who at the time was serving as foreign minister.

“He then refers you to several publications that were less satisfactory, and you write ‘I understand,'” Ben Tzur said. “You have an interest to show the then-minister’s adviser that this is a positive report that you are keeping as the top story for a long time.”

Yisrael Beytenu party chairman Avigdor Liberman speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset, on May 3, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Yeshua responded that that was “correct” and added that the coverage of Liberman was indeed improved following correspondence with Liberman’s office.

Ben Tzur also showed evidence that Walla under Yeshua had coordinated an improvement of its coverage of other politicians such as Likud MK Ofir Akunis.

The defense has been trying to show that despite what Yeshua has been arguing, his orders to give certain stories more or less visibility came regarding not only Netanyahu but also other politicians, businessmen and companies, and were sometimes unrelated to the Elovitches.

Yeshua’s cross-examination is expected to continue for several more weeks before the trial will begin to hear other witnesses.

On Tuesday, a correspondence revealed in the court showed that former Labor party leader Isaac Herzog, currently running to be Israel’s next president, had called his predecessor in the Labor leadership Shelly Yachimovich a “bitch” in a conversation with Yeshua. The same message also saw the ex-Labor chief offer to dictate a headline on Walla.

Herzog defeated Yachimovich in a 2013 party primary. He went on to lead Labor until 2017, including during a failed run against Netanyahu’s Likud in 2015.

Yeshua told Herzog as his victory in the 2013 race was declared: “Congratulations! Don’t hesitate to [ask me for] assistance on any matter.”

And Herzog replied: “Thanks. I would be happy if the headline would read, ‘Overwhelming victory for Herzog despite the attacks against him.’ I must show control and sideline the bitch.”

Former Labor head Isaac Herzog (left) and MK Shelly Yachimovich at a party conference in Tel Aviv on December 14, 2014. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Herzog apologized on Tuesday for the remark, saying it had been made in the heat of an intense political fight.

“Shelly and I have discussed that period numerous times and moved on, but I would like to apologize to her, and to do so publicly, for the unnecessary comment,” he said in a statement.

Herzog is currently running for president, a largely ceremonial post chosen by the Knesset members in a secret ballot. The June 2 vote, just over a month before Rivlin’s seven-year term ends, will see Herzog go head-to-head with Israel Prize-winning educator Miriam Peretz. He is considered the clear frontrunner.

Presidential candidates Miriam Peretz and Isaac Herzog (Meir Elifor, courtesy)

The correspondence between Yeshua and Herzog was revealed by Iris Elovitch’s attorney, Michal Rosen-Ozer.

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 by the Elovitches 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.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Jerusalem District Court for the evidentiary stage of his corruption trial, April 5, 2021. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Pool)

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, who denies wrongdoing, has only been present at 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.

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