Netanyahu trial

Walla owner told CEO: ‘Give Sara everything, Netanyahu’s killing himself for me’

Former chief of news site recalls Elovitch telling him PM was going ‘above and beyond’ to help the company and ‘we have to find a way to repay him’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara on the night of the Israeli elections, at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv, on March 3, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara on the night of the Israeli elections, at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv, on March 3, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The former CEO of the Walla news site on Tuesday continued his key testimony in one of the cases against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying that he was told to pander to the premier’s wife because the company was receiving help with regulatory benefits.

At the Jerusalem District Court, the prosecution presented a message from Walla owner Shaul Elovitch to ex-CEO Ilan Yeshua, which showed the extent of the influence on the editorial process.

“Give the lady everything, he is killing himself for me,” the message from Elovitch read.

Yeshua told the court that the “lady” referred to in the message was Sara Netanyahu and that “he” was the prime minister.

Former Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua at the Jerusalem District Court for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial, April 13, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“He was helping Shaul [Elovitch] with things important to him in terms of regulatory benefits,” Yeshua said.

In the case, Netanyahu is alleged to have used his powers when he served as both premier and communications minister from 2014 to 2017 to illicitly and immensely lucratively advance the business interests of telecommunications magnate Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of Bezeq, in exchange for positive coverage of the prime minister and his family by Walla.

In a separate exchange with Elovitch, Yeshua said his wife had noticed an article about the prime minister’s wife on the website.

“My wife said, ‘I see you worked today. I see a beautiful article about Sara.’ For that I went to work today. In the end we are a friendly organization,” Yeshua wrote to Elovitch.

On another occasion, Elovitch passed on a message to Yeshua from Netanyahu aide Ze’ev Rubinstein, who said that Sara was unhappy about the site.

“She is angry, grumbling, something must be done, Shaul [Elovitch], every article or news must go through Ilan [Yeshua]. Must wait if there are negative things about her husband. Taking care of what I asked for now is very important,” Rubinstein told Elovitch.

Yeshua said that the Netanyahus’ son Yair also played a role by showing his mother stories to anger her.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s wife, Sara Netanyahu, together with their son Yair at a Hannukah event, on December 13, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“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.”

In a separate exchange of text messages presented to the court, Elovitch told Yeshua that Netanyahu was going out of his way to help the company.

“The big guy surprises me in a positive way in the most important things,” Elovitch wrote to Yeshua. “We have to find a way to repay him. What is annoying is that the big guy is going above and beyond to help, and we cannot help him because of a bunch of losers.” (Yeshua previously told the court that “the big guy” was Netanyahu.)

Yeshua responded: “I understand and am committed to this, they will not manage us. In the end we provide the goods, but it can be improved.”

“At the end of the day, there will be a cost in blood,” Yeshua wrote. “But we need to build a completely different apparatus, without Dubik [reporter Dov Gil-Har] and [former Walla editor] Avi [Alkalay].”

Yeshua told the court that the exchange was part of a discussion when Walla chiefs were angered that journalists were not complying with their demands. He said that he interpreted “the most important things” as being the regulatory issues that were most important to Elovitch at Bezeq and that Netanyahu “must be rewarded with biased coverage.”

The prosecution also played recordings in which Elovitch appeared to refer to direct conversations he had with Netanyahu.

“Just so you understand the whole thing, he’s talking to me,” Elovitch said, apparently referring to the premier.

“It is not abnormal demands what they are asking for, it is completely normal,” Elovitch said.

Yeshua responded: “Listen, you gave him the election. It’s not a joke.”

After the recording was presented, Yeshua explained that changes were often made to the site after articles had been published. “The norm was that we didn’t actually edit the site. When we uploaded something, improvements were required. In the title, subheading, image, highlighting, if people were allowed to comment,” Yeshua told the court. “I knew I could upload and there would always be changes and improvements. This was the norm.”

On Monday, Yeshua had provided further information on the premier’s alleged heavy involvement in the editorial process around 2015.

Yeshua described an interview with Netanyahu ahead of that year’s election that was handed over for the prime minister to make edits to at his request.

He said that after the interview, conducted by Gil-Har about a week before the March vote, Yeshua was told Netanyahu was very angry, that the interview had been hostile, that he was not allowed to complete his answers, and that agreements reached ahead of the interview had not been honored.

“Our team denied any agreement,” Yeshua said. “There was very heavy pressure… it came from all directions, there was a demand not to publish it and to do an additional interview.”

He was contacted on the matter by multiple emissaries, including Elovitch, and Netanyahu’s associates Rubinstein and Nir Hefetz.

He said that eventually the interview was sent to Hefetz, without the knowledge of the newsroom or the interviewer. Hefetz later sent it back with the desired amendments. Yeshua said he made Hefetz swear not to tell anyone, “as it’s not proper to let an interview subject fix and edit his own interview… If the newsroom had found out, it would have been outraged. It’s not a reasonable thing.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits at a hearing in his corruption trial at Jerusalem District Court, April 5, 2021. (Oren Ben Hakoon/POOL)

Yeshua said that, after the election, “Shaul mentioned that Sara thanked Iris [Elovitch] very much for the help they had provided. There were comments to the effect that we gave him the election.”

Yeshua recounted last week 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.

Yeshua also 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 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.

The prime minister was briefly in court at the start of last week to hear the chief prosecutor’s opening statement, but has not been present since.

Israeli businessman Shaul Elovitch and his wife Iris at the District Court in Jerusalem, April 6, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel / Flash90)

Elovitch and his wife Iris also face bribery charges in Case 4000. Other Bezeq officials were indicted in related, but separate, cases last year.

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.

Netanyahu’s defense team has repeatedly sought to delay the trial and discredit investigators and the prosecution. The High Court of Justice partially accepted an appeal filed by his team on Sunday that demanded they receive additional materials related to the investigations of the premier.

Some materials that had not been delivered to the defense team until now will be transferred to its members as a result of the appeal.

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. There is no hearing on April 14, however, because of Memorial Day.

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