Key witness takes stand for 2nd day in Netanyahu trial, claims he was threatened

Ilan Yeshua, former CEO of Walla news, continues testimony in evidentiary phase of graft trial after saying he was directed to alter coverage for premier in quid pro quo deal

Court official prepare for the second day of the evidentiary stage of the corruption trial of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Jerusalem District Court on April 6, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)
Court official prepare for the second day of the evidentiary stage of the corruption trial of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Jerusalem District Court on April 6, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

A key witness for the prosecution in a corruption case against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continued his testimony on Tuesday morning, a day after the evidentiary phase of the trial began in Jerusalem.

As the session opened, prosecutor Yehudit Tirosh told the court that in the wake of his testimony the day before, Ilan Yeshua, the former CEO of the Walla news website, had received “unpleasant messages” that he felt were problematic.

Presiding Judge Rivka Friedman-Feldman responded, “When a witness says that he received unpleasant messages, that can influence his behavior.”

Yeshua had given testimony Monday in the Jerusalem District Court, the first testimony of Netanyahu’s trial on corruption charges.

Yeshua recounted in detail how he was instructed by his bosses and people close to Netanyahu to skew the 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 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.

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

Yeshua was the first and so far only witness to appear, though hundreds more are expected to testify in the coming months and potentially years.

He did not complete his testimony on Monday, and continued it Tuesday. Netanyahu did not attend either session, although he was present for an earlier part of Monday’s proceedings.

Tuesday’s proceedings were expected to see the prosecution present Yeshua with prompts to jog his memory and spur further testimony about specific events, Channel 12 reported.

After Yeshua’s testimony, there will be a discussion on search warrants used by police to gather evidence in the case. Some of the evidence was collected under a search warrant for a related case, which the defense will argue is inadmissible in court, the network said.

The trial is scheduled to continue from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday for at least the next few weeks.

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

Netanyahu was required to appear in court Monday at the start of the proceedings, but was granted permission to leave early.

He exited shortly after lead state prosecutor Liat Ben-Ari finished a 20-minute speech in which she laid out the criminal charges against him, describing the ways in which the prime minister allegedly abused the powers of his office in Cases 1000, 2000 and 4000.

Stressing that “every person is equal before the law,” Ben-Ari said that “the case before the honorable court today is a significant and severe case of governmental corruption.” The prime minister, she argued, used the “immense power of his office” to advance “his personal desires.”

Later Monday, Netanyahu lashed out at state prosecutors after the first day of testimony in his corruption trial, accusing them of “hypocrisy” and of leading a “witch hunt” against him. He said the investigation and prosecution constitute an effort by police and prosecutors to “trample democracy” in Israel and subvert the will of the electorate.

In response, senior Justice Ministry and police officials said Netanyahu’s claims were false, accused him of seeking to intimidate the court, and warned his allegations placed prosecutors in danger.

Supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demonstrate outside the District Court in Jerusalem, as Netanyahu arrives for a hearing in his trial, April 05, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

In Case 4000, Netanyahu allegedly used his powers when he served as both premier and communications minister from 2014 to 2017 to illicitly benefit telecommunications magnate Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of Bezeq telecom, in exchange for positive coverage of the prime minister and his family by the Bezeq-owned Walla news site, one of the most popular outlets in Israel. Elovitch and his wife Iris also face bribery charges in Case 4000. Other Bezeq officials were indicted in related, but separate, cases last year.

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 all of the cases.

Prosecutor Liat Ben-Ari arrives at the District Court in Jerusalem, February 8, 2021. (Reuven Castro/Pool)

Monday marked the prime minister’s third appearance in court since the indictments were filed against him in January 2020. The premier most recently appeared before the judges in February 2021, formally pleading not guilty to the charges.

Netanyahu’s legal troubles have been inextricably linked to his premiership and to the country’s current political impasse, which has resulted in four inconclusive elections in the past two years, including the March 23 vote.

Opponents have cited the indictments against him in their campaigns and as a reason to not join a coalition with him. Netanyahu has also been accused by his rivals of seeking support for legislation granting him immunity, though he has denied this.

In a stunning accompaniment to Monday’s trial, across town at the same time, representatives from political parties held consultations with President Reuven Rivlin on their preferred candidate for prime minister.

Netanyahu received the most recommendations with backing from 52 lawmakers, but no candidate has a clear path to a majority coalition.

Rivlin will task a lawmaker with attempting to form a coalition on Tuesday.

Later in the day, the new Knesset’s members will be sworn into office.

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