Netanyahu trial: Judges say police can re-question key witness over new evidence

Ruling comes after Shaul and Iris Elovitch asked Jerusalem District Court to prevent examination of former Walla news editor Avi Alkalay, in Bezeq-Walla bribery trial

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Avi Alkalay, former editor at Walla news, arrives for a hearing at the Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court, on March 10, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Avi Alkalay, former editor at Walla news, arrives for a hearing at the Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court, on March 10, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The Jerusalem District Court on Sunday rejected a request by lawyers for Bezeq telecom owner Shaul Elovitch and his wife Iris Elovitch to prevent prosecutors from further questioning a key witness in a bribery case for which former premier Benjamin Netanyahu is also on trial.

Last month, prosecutors announced that former Walla news editor Avi Alkalay had been summoned for questioning regarding his correspondence with the website’s ex-CEO, Ilan Yeshua, who was testifying in the case, which involves an alleged scheme trading positive news coverage for regulatory favors. The correspondence was found on Yeshua’s phone.

But the defense claimed that allowing the questioning while the trial was ongoing would taint any fresh testimony from Alkalay, demanding that the trial be stopped to allow police to conduct “a complete investigation, with all the relevant investigatory material.”

Judges rejected the claim, saying that “there was nothing out of order in the prosecution’s decision to carry out further investigation of Alkalay.”

Alkalay also will be called as a witness in the Bezeq-Walla alleged bribery case, known as Case 4000, in which Netanyahu is accused of abusing his powers when he served as both prime minister and communications minister from 2014 to 2017.

Netanyahu is accused of 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 the Elovitches were also charged with bribery. All three defendants deny wrongdoing.

Former CEO of Walla news website Ilan Yeshua arrives for his testimony in the corruption trail against former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seen at the District Court in Jerusalem, on June 9, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

According to prosecutors, the correspondence with Yeshua involves “issues that Alkalay addressed in his interrogation.” Prosecutors also said that the questioning would not impact the timing of the trial, noting that Alkalay is not set to testify for some time.

The Netanyahu trial resumed on September 13, following a court order that defense attorneys be provided with new evidence gleaned from messages and emails on Yeshua’s phone.

Yeshua is the first, and so far only, witness to give testimony in Netanyahu’s trial.

In June, the Jerusalem District Court judges overseeing the trial granted a request from the defense attorneys to conduct an expanded search of Yeshua’s phone, arguing that they were not given the texts from all relevant conversations discovered on the device during an earlier search.

The judges authorized another search of Yeshua’s phone for any conversations with politicians, businessmen, and others concerning his involvement in news coverage at Walla. The searches are to be conducted based on relevant keywords, which can also be suggested by the defense.

Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seen outside a court hearing at the District Court in Jerusalem, on April 5, 2021. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Pool)

The volume of material involved adds up to hundreds of thousands of messages, including emails and some 150,000 texts sent via WhatsApp, Channel 13 news reported.

In their Sunday decision, judges said that the discovery of the new messages constituted “exceptional circumstances that justify further investigation.”

The defense has been trying to show that, contrary to his testimony, Yeshua’s orders to give certain stories greater 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.

Separately, last month a judge ruled that Yair Netanyahu must immediately pay Alkalay the settlement ordered by a court earlier this year, after the prime minister’s son lost a libel case against the witness.

Alkalay sued Netanyahu over posts he shared on social media claiming the editor was “a planted mole” working with the state prosecution against his father.

The younger Netanyahu first filed an appeal and then filed a petition to delay paying the fine, saying that he lacked the funds, but both were rejected by the court.

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