Netanyahu trial

PM’s aides had veto over top roles at Walla, Yeshua says in 3rd day of testimony

As graft trial continues in Jerusalem, news site’s ex-CEO says he was warned negative coverage of Netanyahu would hurt Bezeq, claiming implication of quid pro quo deal was ‘clear’

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Ilan Yeshua at the Jerusalem District Court for a court hearing in the corruption case against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, April 7, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)
Ilan Yeshua at the Jerusalem District Court for a court hearing in the corruption case against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, April 7, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

The evidentiary stage of Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial entered its third day Wednesday, with key prosecution witness Ilan Yeshua, the former CEO of the Walla news site, continuing his testimony describing an alleged a quid pro quo deal that gave the prime minister positive news coverage in exchange for regulatory benefits.

In the third straight day of his testimony, Yeshua said it was the “norm” for nominees for senior positions at Walla, including editor-in-chief, to be examined and approved by site owner Shaul Elovitch and the prime minister’s associates Ran Baratz and Nir Hefetz.

For instance, the appointment of veteran reporter and anchor Ayala Hasson was thwarted by Elovitch, who said: “We won’t be able to control her. She does what she wants. You can’t tell her to change the headline or take down the article.”

On Monday, Yeshua recounted how he was repeatedly instructed by his bosses and people close to Netanyahu to skew the news 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 tradeoff deal between Netanyahu and the site’s owners.

The next day, Tuesday, Yeshua detailed how he was asked to be part of a coverup effort to hide the alleged quid pro quo deal. The testimony was heard despite efforts by Netanyahu’s lawyers to disqualify parts of it.

The alleged transaction 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.

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

A composite image of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Bezeq controlling shareholder, Shaul Elovitch. (Flash90: Ohad Zwigenberg/POOL)

On Wednesday, Yeshua testified that he had been told Walla would lose billions of shekels if its coverage was hostile to Netanyahu.

He said that former Bezeq CEO Stella Hendler had regularly reprimanded him for stories published by Walla that she said were “dangerous and hurt Bezeq.”

“The context was clear,” Yeshua added.

He said that after the 2015 Knesset elections, Elovitch’s son Or sent him a WhatsApp group message: “Congratulations, you gave [Netanyahu] the elections, now Bibi will do what Bezeq expects him to do.”

He added that he didn’t recall having been told to improve the coverage of any other right-wing figure. On the contrary, he said, “they usually wanted [us] to attack them.”

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

After Yeshua’s testimony Tuesday, the court rejected two requests from Netanyahu’s lawyers Jack Chen and Boaz Ben Tzur to disqualify parts of his account. The defense had sought to discredit claims from his pretrial testimony to prosecutors along with recorded conversations extracted from his phone, as well as pointing out alleged discrepancies between Yeshua’s police and court testimonies.

The judges, however, ruled the evidence was legitimately obtained and rejected their requests.

On Wednesday, after Netanyahu’s lawyers continued to interrupt the testimony to point out more alleged discrepancies, Friedman-Feldman told them to compile a written list and hand it to the court at the end of the day, instead of voicing each objection out loud. Nevertheless, the testimony continued to be repeatedly interrupted by the defense.

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.

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

Liat Ben Ari, prosecutor in the trial against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, arrives at the Jerusalem District Court for a hearing in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial, April 7, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

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 anonymously 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)

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.

Raoul Wootliff and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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