PM denies all knowledge of alleged political hit job

Texts reveal PM’s alleged efforts to smear rival Bennett with skewed coverage

TV report on Bezeq probe appears to show intimate involvement by Netanyahu in Walla’s editorial choices, as he pushed owner to publish damaging claims about then-Jewish Home head

Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and then-Education Minister Naftali Bennett, left, attend the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, Tuesday, August 30, 2016. (Abir Sultan/Pool/via AP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and then-Education Minister Naftali Bennett, left, attend the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, Tuesday, August 30, 2016. (Abir Sultan/Pool/via AP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu personally oversaw a political hit job against right-wing rival Naftali Bennett while directly influencing the editorial decisions of a major news site, according to an investigative TV report aired Monday.

The Hadashot news report detailed relentless alleged efforts by Netanyahu to skew media coverage for his own benefit, revealing text messages it said were central to a corruption investigation against the premier.  The prime minister dismissed the report, and said he knew nothing about the text messages.

The TV report asserted that during the 2013 election campaign the Walla news site, at the direct urging of Netanyahu, repeatedly published stories aimed at discrediting Bennett and casting him as inconsistent and constantly flip-flopping on his positions.

At the time, Netanyahu was seeking reelection with his Likud party but was facing a surge in support for the religious-Zionist Jewish Home, which Bennett had taken control of a year earlier.

Dozens of text messages reportedly sent by Walla and Bezeq-owner Shaul Elovitch to Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua indicated Netanyahu was the force behind a concerted campaign to improve his own public standing by smearing Bennett with accusations against both him and his family.

Netanyahu’s ties to Elovitch have been the subject of an investigation, known as Case 4000, in which police have recommended the premier be indicted for bribery. Officials believe Netanyahu advanced regulatory decisions benefiting Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in Bezeq, the country’s largest telecommunications firm — despite opposition from the Communication Ministry’s career officials — in exchange for positive coverage from Elovitch’s Walla news site.

Shaul Elovitch arrives at the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court for a remand hearing in Case 4000, February 26, 2018. (Flash90)

In December police said they were recommending bribery charges against both Netanyahu and his wife, Sara Netanyahu, in the Bezeq corruption probe, known as Case 4000. Attorney General Avichai Mandeblit is reportedly set to announce next month whether he plans to press charges in the case, as well as two others in which the prime minister is also suspected of bribery.

In a blistering accusation concluding the nine-month investigation, police said: “The prime minister and his associates intervened in a blatant and ongoing manner, and sometimes even daily, in the content published by the Walla news website, and also sought to influence the appointment of senior officials (editors and reporters) via their contacts with Shaul and Iris Elovitch,” the Bezeq owner’s wife.

Monday’s report claimed that via his associate Zeev Rubinstein, Netanyahu regularly asked Elovitch to publish negative articles in order to destroy Bennett politically, even as Yeshua warned that the premier’s interference was becoming obvious. It also provided several examples of Walla articles that appeared to follow the editorial line being pushed by the prime minister.

One of the text messages appeared to back up a Hadashot report from late last year according to which Netanyahu had sought to publish a report that Gilat, Naftali Bennett’s wife, had served as a chef at non-kosher restaurants.

“The material that I passed on to you in the afternoon is very important, mainly because [the Netanyahus] found Bennett’s wife working as a chef in a non-kosher restaurant (I passed on her picture and the description of the restaurant and the menu of vermin). And she is a religious woman,” Elovitch wrote to Yeshua, according to the report.

In further text messages Elovitch said Netanyahu was growing impatient for the publication of a story on Bennett’s wife, as well as a report alleging ties between Bennett and anti-Netanyahu activist Eldad Yaniv.

Elovitch relayed that Netanyahu “is sitting and staring at Walla” and expected the stories soon.

Later he wrote that Netanyahu was “shouting” at Rubinstein because a story had gone up as a news brief rather than on the main site.

“It’ll be in main within minutes,” Yeshua replied.

“In main! In news!” Elovitch said.

Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett speaks at the International Conference Center in Jerusalem, February 20, 2013. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett speaks at the International Conference Center in Jerusalem, February 20, 2013. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Repeatedly pushed on making editorial decisions to the Netanyahu couple’s liking, Yeshua told Elovitch in one text message: “[The Netanyahus] are hurting themselves. We can’t edit the site in such a way at a moment’s notice. We will see a mass resignation of the heads of [our] departments. It will cause colossal damage to them [the Netanyahus] and irreversible damage to us.”

Many former journalists at Walla have attested to being pressured to refrain from negative reporting on Netanyahu.

In one egregious example of the prime minister’s alleged intervention, Elovich told Yeshua that Netanyahu wanted Walla to publish a report linking Bennett’s father to incitement against assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. This occurred after Bennett said Netanyahu was seeking to wrongly delegitimize members of his party just as some had attempted to tie him (Netanyahu) to the incitement that preceded Rabin’s killing.

“Naftali made a comparison between the character assassination against Bibi after the assassination of Rabin and [Netanyahu’s] alleged criticism of the religious-Zionists. I propose that you examine the pictures from the demonstration against Rabin at the inauguration of the Kfar Shmaryahu intersection. Bennett’s father is almost physically attacking Rabin,” Elovich wrote, adding, “If he’s inciting against the prime minister, perhaps it is worth using the above materials.”

Responding to report, Bennett slammed the apparent efforts to smear him and said in a press statement that “any attempt to harm my father and family is immoral and must simply cease.”

Bennett’s newly formed New Right party, however, later clarified that the report would not impact its previously stated decision to recommend Netanyahu form the next government after the April elections.

The prime minster, in his own response, denied knowledge of the text messages and repeated a claim that coverage of him on Walla was anything but favorable.

“The prime minister does not know of the messages you presented and we reject the effort to present the public with a false image. Walla has always been and remains a radical left-wing news outlet, hostile to the prime minister and his family in hundreds of damaging and skewed articles,” a statement provided to the channel by Netanyahu read.

“It is ridiculous to claim that Netanyahu, smeared more than anyone else in the history of Israeli media, is accused of bribery… because of two and a half articles on Walla,” it added.

Netanyahu later tweeted an image of Hadahsot legal correspondent Guy Peleg branded with “fake news,” saying that the report was both a “lie” and an “excellent defense” against police allegations that to secure positive coverage, he bribed Elovitch with regulatory benefits thanks to his position as communications minister as well as prime minister. Netanyahu noted that he was only communications minister from 2015 to 2017, and the report dealt with alleged media manipulation in 2013.

In fact, while police said that the bulk of the regulatory benefits given to Bezeq did indeed take pace during Netanyahu’s term as communications minister, they did not rule out earlier interventions and specifically cited earlier efforts to skew media coverage as an example of the long-seated illicit relationship that led to the alleged bribery.

Netanyahu is also a suspect in two other corruption probes, cases 1000 and 2000 — two investigations in which police have already recommended bribery indictments.

In Case 1000, the so-called “gifts scandal,” Netanyahu is suspected of “systematically” demanding benefits worth about NIS 1 million ($282,000) from billionaire benefactors, including Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and Australian resort owner James Packer, in exchange for favors.

Case 2000 involves a suspected illicit quid pro quo deal between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes that would have seen the prime minister work to weaken a rival daily, the Sheldon Adelson-backed Israel Hayom, in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.

Netanyahu has denied wrongdoing in all of the cases, insisting the gifts were given by friends and were not bribes, and that he never intended to act on his conversations with Mozes.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit reportedly seeks to announce his decision on a possible indictment, pending a hearing, before the national vote. Netanyahu has argued over the past two weeks that such a move would be unfair and akin to “stealing the elections.”

Netanyahu has stopped short of directly accusing the attorney general of political bias over the corruption probes, but has attacked Mandelblit regarding an “unprecedented” brief interview the AG gave at the weekend to Hadashot TV news, and has complained that he has been prevented from confronting his accusers. Other lawmakers in his Likud party have lashed out directly at Mandelblit. Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing and has blamed the investigations against him on a”witch hunt” by the left, the media and the police, in turn relentlessly pressuring Mandelblit to prosecute him.

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