Netanyahu trial

Ex-Walla CEO: We removed news about bereaved families because PM didn’t like it

Ilan Yeshua says editors were told to take down stories about families of soldiers killed in 2014 Gaza war; says was made to fawn over Sara Netanyahu as if in ‘Byzantine court’

Former CEO of Walla news website Ilan Yeshua arrives for his testimony in the case against Prime Minister Netanyahu who is on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, at the District Court in Jerusalem, May 4, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Former CEO of Walla news website Ilan Yeshua arrives for his testimony in the case against Prime Minister Netanyahu who is on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, at the District Court in Jerusalem, May 4, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On the first day of the cross-examination of Ilan Yeshua in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s graft trial on Tuesday, the former Walla news CEO told the court that editors were ordered to remove stories from the site about families bereaved in the 2014 Gaza war because the premier didn’t like them.

Yeshua, who previously told the court how close associates of Netanyahu were directly involved in shaping the content of the news site to the premier’s liking, made the statement by way of explanation for his publicly stated feelings about the prime minister.

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.”

The defense lawyer for Bezeq controlling shareholder Shaul Elovitch, Jack Chen, in an apparent attempt to demonstrate Yeshua’s bias against the prime minister, said to Yeshua: “You expressed yourself freely.”

Lawyer Jack Chen arrives at the Jerusalem District Court, May 4, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Yeshua responded that he made the comments about Netanyahu after a prolonged period of pressure in which editors at Walla were told to take down stories about families of soldiers who fell in the 2014 Gaza war with Hamas because the prime minister did not like such coverage.

“Things were said after a long period of pressure. I had to give explanations for what we did, sometimes there were very difficult cases. We had to take down news about bereaved families because Netanyahu did not like it. It was not the cause, but the result,” Yeshua said.

It was not clarified in the cross-examination who had told the editors to take down the stories.

The family of Hadar Goldin, an IDF soldier whose remains have been held by the Hamas terror group in Gaza since the 2016 war, issued an angry response after the testimony, saying it explained what they described as “institutional silence” in the face of their fight to return their son.

Leah, right, and Simcha Goldin, parents of late Israeli soldier Hadar Goldin whose body is held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, attend a press conference in Ramat Gan, April 25, 2018. (Flash90)

“For years we have been yelling about the institutional silence directed from above when it comes to returning Hadar Goldin. To what depths of the abyss can our leadership sink? Shame and disgrace,” the family said.

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 to illicitly and lucratively affect the business interests of Bezeq’s controlling shareholder, Elovitch. In exchange, Elovitch allegedly provided Netanyahu with positive coverage of the prime minister and his family by the Elovitch-owned Walla news site.

Netanyahu faces charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in the case, while Elovitch and his wife, Iris, were also charged with bribery. All three defendants deny wrongdoing.

During the cross-examination, Yeshua also said that he received “crazy” requests from the prime minister’s wife, in a situation he likened to a “Byzantine court.”

When questioned about the relationship with Netanyahu associate Zeev Rubinstein, Yeshua said Rubinstein was “their senior officer in the Byzantine court,” and would pass on the “crazy requests and angles of Sara Netanyahu.”

“Why don’t you ask me if I meant what I said about whether Sara was beautiful in the photo?” Yeshua asked Chen. “Because you too understand that I am participating in a fawning discourse at a Byzantine court.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara on the night of the Israeli elections, at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv, on March 3, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Chen also presented Yeshua with a 2013 article from Ha’Ayin Hashevi’it, a periodical that covers the media, in which journalists at Walla said Yeshua had improperly intervened in the editorial process at Walla and accusing their boss of fostering a culture of humiliation.

The article stated that “there has been an erosion in the independence of journalists by the Walla management because these may harm the commercial interests of the company,” including relating to articles about Netanyahu’s Likud party.

Yeshua responded to Chen that he freely admitted that he took commercial considerations into account when making decisions.

“The company has commercial interests, and I am not ashamed to admit it. From what I remember, I did not want to deny it. There are such considerations and I have made such decisions,” Yeshua told the court.

The trial at the Jerusalem District Court resumed Monday after a pause since April 20 to discuss several requests by Netanyahu’s attorneys to release pieces of evidence. Netanyahu himself has only been in the courthouse for two of the hearings.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for a hearing at the District Court in Jerusalem on April 5, 2021,(Oren Ben Hakoon/POOL)

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.

In addition to the charges in Case 4000, Netanyahu is also 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.

The resumption of testimony in the trial came the same day Netanyahu’s mandate to form a government after a recent election was set to expire.

Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, is fighting for his political and legal survival after the March 23 elections, as he struggles to form a government while on trial for corruption. His official mandate to assemble a coalition expires on Tuesday night, though he can request a 14-day extension from President Reuven Rivlin.

Yamina party Ayelet Shaked MK arrives at the Knesset in Jerusalem, April 6, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

In bombshell recordings aired on Monday night, senior Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked described Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, as “dictators” and “tyrants” with a “lust for power,” and said the premier only cares about his ongoing corruption trial.

The recordings were played on Channel 12, as Netanyahu was engaged in a last-minute attempt to draw Yamina into a right-wing coalition before his deadline expires.

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