Ilan Yeshua, the former CEO of Walla, testified Monday during his cross-examination in the corruption trial of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the news site was ordered to take down a story about the premier’s wife, Sara, pocketing cash redeemed from bottles that were bought with public funds and sent for recycling.
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, including allowing the prime minister’s associates and family members to dictate policy on a regular basis.
In his 21st day of testimony, Yeshua answered defense questions about his claims, including regarding a story about Sara Netanyahu and the thousands of shekels she was said to have obtained from bottle deposits at the Prime Minister’s Residence.
In 2015, Meni Naftali, a former caretaker at the Prime Minister’s Residence, claimed that Sara Netanyahu bilked the state out of thousands of shekels by pocketing the small change from bottle deposits during the first four years of her husband’s time in office.
She made around NIS 24,000 ($6,115) for her efforts, Naftali claimed.
The Netanyahus returned NIS 4,000 ($1,000) in 2013, based on an estimate of NIS 1,000 ($250) a year, the Prime Minister’s Office spokesman said at the time in response to the reports, though Naftali claimed the amount should have been far higher.
Naftali was suing the Netanyahus over his treatment at the hands of the prime minister’s wife.
The reports came out as Benjamin Netanyahu was preparing to seek reelection in a snap vote.
Yeshua told the court that he and Walla’s editor at the time, Avi Alkalay, were instructed to remove from the site a story about the claims.
“The order to take it down came from above. Neither I nor Avi thought the article should be taken down,” Yeshua told the court.
The prime minister’s attorney Boaz Ben Tzur then challenged Yeshua with remarks Yeshua had made to a Globes newspaper reporter in 2015 — that he had “drawn the line” at the story about the bottles and that Alkalay agreed, telling him to “stop dealing with this” and referring to the story as “trash.”
Yeshua responded to Ben Tzur that he had “presented a narrative to the reporter” and explained he was defending the Walla website at the time, even though personally he was opposed to blocking the story.
“I didn’t think that article should have been taken down, I thought that was extreme,” he said. “Under normal circumstances, neither I nor Avi would have taken down the bottle story.”
Ben Tzur, seeking to show that Walla did not provide special treatment to Netanyahu, challenged Yeshua, saying that the website published 109 stories about Naftali — which the attorney said was more than any other media outlet — and that most of them cast Netanyahu in a negative light.
“I haven’t compiled the statistics, but I know there were articles that I was asked to take down and also some that were against him [the prime minister],” he said.
The defense has been trying to show that despite what Yeshua has been arguing, orders to give certain stories more or less visibility were commonplace not only when it came to Netanyahu but also to other politicians, businessmen and companies, and were sometimes unrelated to the Elovitches.
In his testimony, Yeshua has also described how the prime minister’s son Yair and his wife, Sara, would interfere in the running of Walla.
Yeshua’s cross-examination is expected to continue for several more weeks before the trial will begin to hear other witnesses.
Netanyahu faces charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in the case, while Elovitch and his wife, Iris, have been charged with bribery. All three defendants deny wrongdoing.
Last week, Yeshua told the court that Walla had conducted a campaign on behalf of the premier aimed at preventing Reuven Rivlin from being elected president in 2014.
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.