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Prosecutors said to warn phone search in Netanyahu graft trial could take months

TV says State Attorney’s Office won’t appeal court order to dig through a key witness’s correspondence, but may reconsider if judges don’t clarify how search can be more targeted

Liat Ben-Ari, the top prosecutor in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's corruption trial, and other prosecutors arrive at the Jerusalem District Court on May 31, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Liat Ben-Ari, the top prosecutor in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's corruption trial, and other prosecutors arrive at the Jerusalem District Court on May 31, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The State Attorney’s Office is not currently planning to appeal a court order to fully look though the phone of a key witness in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial but has warned the search could take months, Israeli television reported Friday.

Instead of appealing, prosecutors asked the Jerusalem District Court for clarification on how to go about the search of former Walla news CEO Ilan Yeshua’s phone, according to Channel 13 news.

The prosecutors claimed that without keywords for a more targeted search, the process of sifting through the roughly 350,000 messages and emails on Yeshua’s phone could last for months, the network said.

They also reportedly suggested having Yeshua go through the phone and divide his correspondence into categories to be determined by the court, noting they do not know the names of all the various people he was in contact with.

The report stressed that prosecutors could reconsider appealing to the Supreme Court after hearing the judges’ response to their requests for clarification.

Former Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua at the Jerusalem District Court on June 9, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The court’s order on Wednesday came in response to a request from defense attorneys, who argued they were not given the texts from all relevant conversations on Yeshua’s phone during an earlier search. The search will focus on any conservations with politicians, businessmen, and others Yeshua had concerning his involvement in news coverage at Walla.

“There are grounds for the defense’s claim that the investigative materials it received were partial,” the judges wrote in their decision. “There is no dispute that this state of affairs must be fixed as soon as possible.”

Prosecutors have until June 27 to hand over the material.

Yeshua is the first witness to give testimony in Netanyahu’s trial. He is a top 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 benefit 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 news website, including allowing the prime minister’s associates and family members to dictate editorial content and policy on a regular basis.

Shaul and Iris Elovitch arrive at the Jerusalem District Court on June 9, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The expanded search could set back the trial schedule as the cross-examination of Yeshua — which has already lasted 22 days and is expected to take several more weeks — will require far more time to complete if new evidence is introduced.

The defense has been trying to show that despite what Yeshua has been arguing, 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.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen as he arrives for a court hearing at the District Court in Jerusalem on April 5, 2021. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Pool)

In his testimony, Yeshua has described how the prime minister’s son Yair and his wife, Sara, would interfere in the running of Walla.

Earlier this week, Yeshua testified during his cross-examination that Walla was ordered to take down a story about Sara Netanyahu pocketing cash redeemed from bottles that were bought with public funds and sent for recycling.

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.

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