The former editor-in-chief of the Walla news site testified Tuesday that “brutal” interference in coverage of then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu as part of an alleged quid-pro-quo deal had bothered him so much that he quit as head of the news department.
Aviram Elad started testifying on Monday after the first witness — out of more than 300 — in the so-called Case 4000, former Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua, ended his testimony some six months after the trial’s evidentiary phase started.
In Case 4000, Netanyahu is accused of abusing his powers when he served as both prime minister and communications minister from 2014 to 2017. Netanyahu is charged with illicitly and lucratively benefiting the business interests of Bezeq telecom’s controlling shareholder, Shaul Elovitch, in exchange for positive coverage on the Bezeq-owned Walla news website.
Netanyahu faces charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust, while Elovitch and his wife have been charged with bribery. All three defendants deny wrongdoing.
Testifying at the Jerusalem District Court on Tuesday, Elad, currently the CEO of Channel 13, said: “The interference on the topic of the Netanyahu family bothered me very much. It hurt my ability to do the job, and ultimately also led to my resignation from Walla.”
Elad has indicated that the website’s staff had understood that positive coverage for Netanyahu had to be given so that Bezeq wouldn’t be harmed.
Elad had been the head of Walla’s news department until he quit in 2014 over the attempt to tilt the coverage in Netanyahu’s favor. He said that in 2016, Yeshua asked him to return, this time as editor-in-chief, to try and rectify the situation.
“I expressed amazement, because he said he knew why I left in 2014,” Elad said. “He told me this was ruining Walla and that’s why he was contacting me. I made it clear that I would come only if the interventions stopped. That was my main condition.”
According to the testimony, Yeshua had told the Netanyahus that Elad would easily agree to tilt Walla’s coverage. “[Yeshua] told me this with a sort of smile on his face, as if he had tricked them.”
“Already on the first or second day, intense contact begins regarding Netanyahu-related stories,” Elad said. “I think there was a state comptroller report with criticism of Netanyahu and we were told to censor it.”
The intervention reached new heights, Elad said, when news broke of the so-called submarine affair, the biggest corruption case in Israel’s history, which involved an alleged bribery scheme influencing the purchase of submarines and other vessels from German shipbuilder Thyssenkrupp. The case has ensnared many Netanyahu associates, but not the Likud party leader himself.
“For me that was a very dramatic case, and I ordered the desk to prepare [a story],” Elad said. “Ilan [Yeshua] called me and I said it was a story that could topple a government. He told me: ‘Okay, go ahead.’ A few minutes afterward he told me to stop and wait. I was amazed.
“We continued discussing it with raised voices into the night. I told him this totally contradicted everything we had agreed on,” Elad said, adding that he accused Yeshua of carrying out “aggressive censorship.”
He said that the following morning, he decided he had to publish a story about it after all, and ran a follow-up article focused on a call by attorney Gonen Ben-Yitzhak to open an investigation. Elad said that Yeshua told him he had caused “serious chaos” by publishing the story and that it had prompted questions about his personal ties to Ben-Yitzhak.
“Ilan told me: ‘As far as the Netanyahus are concerned, you’re done.’ He said he had described me in a certain way and now they understood I was not who he had said I was, and that the Netanyahu family was demanding my dismissal,” Elad said.
He was not, however, dismissed. He resigned in 2018.
Elad said Yeshua had told him there were “billions on the line,” expressly stating on several occasions that Walla should flatter Netanyahu because Bezeq and Elovitch depended on him for regulatory decisions.
Prosecutors presented evidence showing that Yeshua started a WhatsApp group in November 2016 with Elad and then-news department head Michal Klein, ordering them to send him Netanyahu-related items for approval ahead of time and returning stories with alterations in the leader’s favor.
“This sometimes slowed us down by hours. In the internet, that is a crime, because your work is based on timing,” Elad said.
The trial officially began in May 2020, but has been plagued by a series of delays and months of breaks. The evidentiary phase of the trial kicked off in April of this year. Netanyahu himself has largely been absent from the courtroom.
Raoul Wootliff and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.