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Staff at Walla nicknamed PM 'Kim Jong Un'

Ex-CEO of top news site: Skewed coverage of Netanyahu was part of quid pro quo

Ilan Yeshua details orders to fire top editor, bury negative stories, smear rivals, all coming from PM’s aides; says Walla owners made clear their business interests were at stake

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

  • Court sketch of Ilan Yeshua in the Jerusalem District Court, April 5, 2021. (Biana Zakutnik)
    Court sketch of Ilan Yeshua in the Jerusalem District Court, April 5, 2021. (Biana Zakutnik)
  • Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits at a hearing in his corruption trial at Jerusalem District Court, April 5, 2021. (Oren Ben Hakoon/POOL)
    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits at a hearing in his corruption trial at Jerusalem District Court, April 5, 2021. (Oren Ben Hakoon/POOL)
  • Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Jerusalem District Court for the evidentiary stage of his corruption trial, April 5, 2021. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Pool)
    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Jerusalem District Court for the evidentiary stage of his corruption trial, April 5, 2021. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Pool)
  • Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaves the courtroom at Jerusalem District Court on April 5, 2021, during his corruption trial. (Abir SULTAN / POOL / AFP)
    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaves the courtroom at Jerusalem District Court on April 5, 2021, during his corruption trial. (Abir SULTAN / POOL / AFP)
  • State Prosecutor Liat Ben-Ari (C) attends a hearing for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's corruption trial at Jerusalem District Court, April 5, 2021. (Abir SULTAN / POOL / AFP)
    State Prosecutor Liat Ben-Ari (C) attends a hearing for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's corruption trial at Jerusalem District Court, April 5, 2021. (Abir SULTAN / POOL / AFP)
  • Businessman Shaul Elovitch, one of the defendants, attends a session of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's trial for corruption at Jerusalem District Court on April 5, 2021. (Abir SULTAN / POOL / AFP)
    Businessman Shaul Elovitch, one of the defendants, attends a session of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's trial for corruption at Jerusalem District Court on April 5, 2021. (Abir SULTAN / POOL / AFP)

In the first testimony of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial on Monday, the former CEO of the Walla news website recounted in detail how he was instructed by his bosses and people close to Netanyahu to skew the site toward positive coverage of the premier and criticism of his rivals — and said those instructions were part of a quid pro quo deal between Netanyahu and the site’s owners.

This alleged quid pro quo goes to the heart of the most serious of the three cases against Netanyahu, Case 4000, in which he is charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Netanyahu has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Ilan Yeshua told the Jerusalem District Court that instructions regarding what Walla — which was Israel’s second-largest news site — should and should not report came from the owners Shaul and Iris Elovitch as well as others, including the prime minister’s media adviser and the spokesman of his Likud party.

But he told the court that he believed the orders originated directly with the prime minister, and that Shaul Elovitch was also benefitting from the arrangement. Yeshua based his conclusion on feedback he received on the extent to which Netanyahu or his wife, Sara, were satisfied with the changes, and because explicit instructions were given to change content that dealt with upcoming legislative and regulatory issues that had implications for Elovitch.

Yeshua was being questioned by Prosecutor Yehudit Tirosh. His testimony is considered a key element in Case 4000, one of three sets of charges against Netanyahu.

Court sketch of Ilan Yeshua in the Jerusalem District Court, April 5, 2021. (Biana Zakutnik)

In Case 4000,  prosecutors claim that the favorable coverage was part of an illicit quid pro quo in exchange for regulatory favors for the Elovitches, who also controlled the Bezeq telecommunications firm.

“Shaul, Iris, Nir [Hefetz], Zeev [Rubinstein], Shai Haik made statements or comments that ‘she was happy,’” referring to Sara Netanyahu “or ‘they were pleased,’” Yeshua said, referring to the Elovitch couple and others close to the prime minister.

Yeshua said there were also cases in which the Elovitches explicitly called for articles critical of the premier to be taken down because of an upcoming regulatory decision and that there was a clear exchange taking place.

“Elovitch would say, ‘Take that [article] down; tomorrow he needs to sign off on Yes,’” Yeshua recalled, referring to the satellite television company. The merger of Bezeq and Yes allegedly benefited the Elovitches to the tune of several hundred million dollars.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, enters a courtroom at the Jerusalem District Court for a hearing in his corruption trial, April 5, 2021. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Pool)

Yeshua also recounted that at one point he was told by Elovitch to fire a chief editor, Tali Ben Ovadia, shortly after she was hired because she was seen as anti-Netanyahu due to something she had written.

He was told to “move her or throw her out,” he told the court.

Netanyahu was in the courtroom at the start of the session to hear the state’s opening statement, made by lead prosecutor Liat Ben-Ari. Ben-Ari said that “the case before the honorable court today is a significant and severe case of governmental corruption.” The prime minister, she charged, used the “immense power of his office” to advance “his personal desires… The relationship between Netanyahu and the defendants became currency, something that could be traded,” she said. “The currency could distort a public servant’s judgment.”

He left before Yeshua took the stand after being granted permission to do so.

Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes, another defendant in the trial but in a different case, likewise left, but the Eloviches remained.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits at a hearing in his corruption trial at Jerusalem District Court, April 5, 2021. (Oren Ben Hakoon/POOL)

Yeshua said that from around 2013 he was instructed to play down negative articles about Netanyahu and his wife Sara and to boost stories that helped the premier.

Superiors told him to put out “positive articles and stories about the prime minister and his wife and occasionally about his son, but mostly about the prime minister and his wife,” Yeshua said.

In addition, he said he was told to “put out negative stories against rivals of the prime minister, like Bennett, Naftali Bennett.” Bennett, who leads the Yamina party, was at the time head of Jewish Home. “We put out a series of articles against Bennett and his wife.”

Former housing minister Uri Ariel and former justice minister Ayelet Shaked, both of Jewish Home at the time, were also targeted, he said.

“Did you know why?” prosecutor Tirosh asked him.

“Because that’s what the prime minister wants. That was the explanation that was given,” Yeshua responded.

Asked by the prosecutor why the website was allegedly also beholden to the demands of Sara Netanyahu, Yeshua explained that Shaul and Iris Elovitch believed that in order to get favors from the prime minister, it was necessary to keep his wife happy.

“If she gets upset, he’ll get upset, and if he gets upset, he’ll cause damage. They would say things like that, that she is the most important thing to him,” Yeshua said.

Sara Netanyahu appears in a video released on July 30, 2020. (Screen capture: Twitter)

After Tirosh asked the question about Sara, Yeshua hesitated before answering, prompting one of Netanyahu’s lawyers, Amit Hadad, to say wryly, “One moment, it takes time to make something up.”

Yeshua said that while other politicians also sometimes requested positive coverage or try to get negative articles played down, the requests from the prime minister were on a totally different scale.

“Over the course of years, the numbers of requests from other politicians equaled a week from the prime minister and his wife,” he said.

Yeshua said he and the former editor in chief of the news outlet, as well as other senior staff, developed a number of nicknames and codewords to discuss Netanyahu and the skewed coverage that the website gave to him.

Netanyahu was sometimes called “Kim Jong Un,” North Korea’s dictator, around the office, while Sara Netanyahu was called “Ri Sol-ju,” Kim’s wife.

In addition, the former editor of Walla, Yinon Magal, would tell Yeshua that he was “delivering a kebab” when a positive news story was due to be published, while a “kebab with paprika” was the code for a negative story.

Netanyahu’s lawyers interrupted the proceedings in an attempt to object to some of Yeshua’s comments and cross-examine him. The judges blocked the effort, saying the premier’s legal team would have a chance to respond after the testimony, not during it.

Iris Elovitch also interrupted, at one point calling Yeshua a liar.

“How much can you lie?!” she shouted from the back of the courtroom as Yeshua testified. The Elovitches’ attorney calmed her down and later said her client apologized. She also asked that the prosecution clearly state when an allegation was being leveled against Iris Elovitch and when it was against her husband Shaul, as there had been cases of the two defendants being lumped together in the claims.

Tirosh then instructed Yeshua to clearly note when he received a directive from Iris and when he received one from Shaul.

Nir Hefetz speaks with reporters at the Tel Aviv District Court on November 10, 2019. (Screen capture: Twitter)

Aside from instructions from the Elovitches, Yeshua said requests also came from the Prime Minister’s Office through emails and text messages.

He listed people from the Prime Minister’s Office and the premier’s inner circle who acted as intermediaries between the Netanyahus and the Walla news site.

The first of these conduits was a friend of the Netanyahus, the tycoon Zeev Rubinstein, who would direct the outlet to write about various topics or to take down articles that the premier and his family didn’t like.

Yeshua also named Nir Hefetz, Netanyahu’s former media adviser, and former Likud spokesman Shai Haik, as intermediaries.

Businessman Shaul Elovitch, one of the defendants, attends a session of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial for corruption at Jerusalem District Court on April 5, 2021. (Abir SULTAN / POOL / AFP)

He said initially directives would come through Elovitch, but eventually he got those orders from the premier’s office directly.

“There were two directives: Take down articles that were negative [about the Netanyahus] and put up articles that were positive,” Yeshua said.

“I would get it from [Netanyahu’s media adviser Nir Hefetz] and then get it a minute later from Shaul [Elovitch]. It became clear to me that I had to do what [Hefetz] asked me to,” he said, noting that he eventually stopped waiting for the order from Elovitch.

“I would know what to do,” Yeshua said, recalling that Hefetz was referred to as the “Rottweiler.”

There were constant fights about the demands, he said, but “90 percent” of them were accepted in the end.

Instructions included not being allowed to write any stories about allegations of impropriety by the premier and his allies in the purchase of submarines from Germany, a wide-reaching corruption case that has touched several of Netanyahu’s close confidants, although investigators have said the prime minister himself is not a suspect.

Iris Elovitch, one of the defendants, attends a session of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial for corruption at Jerusalem District Court on April 5, 2021. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Pool)

On one occasion, there was an attempt to make up a story about sexual harassment relating to investigative journalist Avner Hofstein. Hofstein currently reports for The Times of Israel’s Hebrew-language sister site, Zman Yisrael, but at that time worked for Army Radio.

Netanyahu’s attorneys objected to that allegation, saying it did not appear in the indictment or other paperwork submitted by the prosecution.

Former Walla editor Ilan Yeshua enters a courtroom at the Jerusalem District Court for a hearing in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial, April 5, 2021. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Pool)

Yeshua also recalled a specific case in which Walla was instructed to write a negative article about then-agriculture minister Uri Ariel, but the story didn’t meet the news outlet’s editorial policies as the reporters could not get it confirmed and Ariel had denied the allegations against him. He said this led to a follow-up conversation with Elovitch, who Yeshua said had spoken to Netanyahu.

After that incident, Iris Elovich became a kind of “super editor” controlling the site’s coverage, he said.

Netanyahu, not in court anymore, responded to Yeshua’s testimony in a tweet that linked to an article on the Mida website, published in 2018, which claimed that a review of Walla’s website editorials during the period of December 2014 to March 2015, when elections were held, showed 17 were negative about Netanyahu or his Likud party, and only six favorable.

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 the cases, in which he has been charged with accepting improper gifts and seeking to trade regulatory favors with media moguls in exchange for positive coverage.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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