Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s associates ordered the CEO of a major news site to take down an article about the non-Jewish girlfriend of the premier’s son, the media executive recalled Monday, as he continued his testimony in one of the criminal cases against Netanyahu.
Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua said he was told by the site’s owner Shaul Elovitch to remove the article about Yair Netanyahu’s personal life “at any cost.” According to the indictment against the prime minister, Netanyahu was involved in relaying that message to Elovich.
Netanyahu is alleged to have abused his powers when he served as both premier and communications minister from 2014 to 2017 to illicitly and immensely lucratively affect the business interests of Bezeq’s controlling shareholder Elovich, in exchange for positive coverage of the prime minister and his family by Walla.
Elovitch and his wife Iris also face bribery charges. Other Bezeq officials were indicted in related, but separate, cases last year.
In his sixth day of testimony at the Jerusalem District Court, Yeshua described how on January 26, 2014, an article was published on Walla with the headline: “A call to Netanyahu: Stop the relationship between your son and his Norwegian girlfriend.”
Following the publication, Netanyahu aide Ze’ev Rubinstein contacted the Walla CEO and owner “demanding that the article be taken down,” Yeshua testified, adding that Elovitch then separately contacted him in order to have the article downgraded and placed in a marginal spot on the website.
Backed up by text message presented to the court by the prosecution, Yeshua described how in a WhatsApp group with Elovitch and other Bezeq officials, Elovitich later wrote: “We’re stupid. We need him for tomorrow, to sign.” According to Yeshua, the Bezeq CEO was referring to Netanyahu and a pending regulatory agreement that would be favorable to Elovich’s telecommunication firm.
Yeshua also recalled events from 2013 surrounding the potential sale of Walla to either casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson, US businessman Larry Allison or Australian casino mogul James Packer on the buyer’s list.
Yeshua testified that Elovich told him Packer had inquired about the purchase of Walla at Netanyahu’s request.
The court was shown text messages between Elovich and Yeshua, discussing a coming visit to the country by Packer in which Elovich wrote that the Australian was likely to “get a massage.”
Yeshua told the court he understood that meant Netanyahu would pressure Packer to make the purchase.
“I feel like I’m in a movie,” Yeshua wrote to Elovich who responded, “Sadly it is reality.”
In other examples of alleged interference in reporting on behalf of Netanyahu, Yeshua testified how in the lead-up to the 2013 elections, he was contacted by Rubenstein who asked him to publish stories targeting then Jewish Home chairman Naftali Bennett.
Yeshua testified that Netanyahu and his wife Sara were “hysterical” about Walla publishing unfavorable coverage on Bennett’s wife Gilat.
Elovich, Yeshua said, urged him to publish material about Gilat Bennett working as a chef at a non-kosher restaurant — information that could have potentially harmed her husband whose party is seen as representing the national religious camp in Israel.
According to the evidence, Yeshua forwarded an email from Shaul Elovitch containing unreleased information on Bennett to editors and staff of the Walla news site, saying that “here is material sent to me anonymously about Bennett … If there is anything journalistic here, then take advantage.”
In his Monday testimony, Yeshua described how both Yair Netanyahu and Sara Netanyahu, would interfere in the running of Walla.
“Iris and Shaul [Elovitch] kept telling me in messages that the son Yair gets up in the morning and checks everything and incites Sara by telling her things,” Yeshua said. “Here the relationship was that we belonged to [the Netanyahus] and we must completely do what they say.”
The alleged exchanges goes to the heart of Case 4000, the most serious of the three cases against Netanyahu, in which he is charged with bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. Netanyahu has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
In addition to his charges in Case 4000, Netanyahu is also charged with fraud and breach of trust in two other cases, one of which also involves suspicions of trading regulatory favors for positive coverage.