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Witness in PM’s trial: Presidential hopeful Herzog called Labor rival a ‘bitch’

Ex-head of center-left party, who is the leading candidate to replace Rivlin, apologizes to Shelly Yachimovich for ‘unnecessary comment’ from 2013

Former Labor head Isaac Herzog (left)  and MK Shelly Yachimovich at a party conference in Tel Aviv on December 14, 2014. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Former Labor head Isaac Herzog (left) and MK Shelly Yachimovich at a party conference in Tel Aviv on December 14, 2014. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Former Labor party leader Isaac Herzog, currently running to be Israel’s next president, called his predecessor in the Labor leadership Shelly Yachimovich a “bitch,” according to correspondence revealed Tuesday during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial.

Herzog defeated the party’s incumbent leader Yachimovich in a 2013 party primary. He went on to lead Labor until 2017, including during a failed run against Netanyahu’s Likud in 2015.

Herzog apologized on Tuesday for the remark, saying it had been made in the heat of an intense political fight.

“Shelly and I have discussed that period numerous times and moved on, but I would like to apologize to her, and to do so publicly, for the unnecessary comment,” he said in a statement.

The comment came to light as part of messages sent between Herzog and former Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua, a key witness against Netanyahu. The same message also saw the ex-Labor chief offer to dictate a headline on the Walla news site.

Yeshua told Herzog as his victory in the 2013 race was declared: “Congratulations! Don’t hesitate to [ask me for] assistance on any matter.”

And Herzog replied: “Thanks. I would be happy if the headline would read, ‘Overwhelming victory for Herzog despite the attacks against him.’ I must show control and sideline the bitch.”

Herzog is currently running for president, a largely ceremonial post chosen by the Knesset members in a secret ballot. The June 2 vote, just over a month before President Reuven Rivlin’s seven-year term ends, will see Herzog go head-to-head with Israel Prize-winning educator Miriam Peretz. He is considered the clear frontrunner.

Presidential candidates Miriam Peretz and Isaac Herzog (Meir Elifor, courtesy)

The emergence of the correspondence came as defense attorneys continued their cross-examination of Yeshua, the first witness to give testimony in Netanyahu’s trial. Yeshua is a key 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 affect 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.

Netanyahu faces charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in the case, while Elovitch and his wife, Iris, were charged with bribery. All three defendants deny wrongdoing.

The correspondence between Yeshua and Herzog was revealed by Iris Elovitch’s attorney, Michal Rosen-Ozer.

Former Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua is seen on the witness stand at the Jerusalem District Court on May 25, 2021, during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

In response to Herzog’s request to change the headline, Yeshua told him, “Okay, I’m taking care of it. I’m in Hawaii, but I’ll instruct Avi,” referring to Walla’s then-editor Avi Alkalay.

Yeshua added: “Send me more material and we’ll put together a large item about the win and a review of all her efforts to thwart you.”

During the cross-examination, Rosen-Ozer asked Yeshua if he ever reached out to a politician to offer assistance, and if that same politician then later asked him for skewed coverage. Yeshua said he could not remember, prompting Rosen-Ozer to display another set of messages exchanged between the Walla CEO and Herzog after the latter was questioned by police over a problematic donation made to his 2013 Labor leadership campaign. The case against Herzog was ultimately closed for lack of evidence.

“If you need anything, talk to me. Any time, don’t hesitate. I’m certain of your integrity,” Yeshua wrote.

After being shown the correspondence, Yeshua said he did remember and called the incident a “rare case.”

Iris Elovitch (R) speaks with her lawyer Michal Rosen-Ozer at the Jerusalem District Court on May 10, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The defense has been trying to show that despite what Yeshua has been arguing, his orders to give certain stories more or less visibility came regarding not only Netanyahu but also other politicians, businessmen and companies, and were sometimes unrelated to the Elovitches.

Yeshua’s cross-examination is expected to continue for several more weeks before the trial will begin hearing other witnesses.

On the first day of the cross-examination several weeks ago, Yeshua said editors were ordered to remove stories from the site about families bereaved in the 2014 Gaza war because the premier didn’t like them.

During questioning about his own political views, Yeshua admitted he told staff members that “Bibi is destroying the Zionist enterprise” and said that the prime minister was “a disaster for the country.”

Yeshua has also said that he received “crazy” requests from the prime minister’s wife, in a situation he likened to a “Byzantine court.”

During his earlier testimony, Yeshua described 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 by the Elovitches to be part of an effort to cover up the alleged quid pro quo deal. The testimony was heard despite efforts by Netanyahu’s lawyers to disqualify parts of it.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Jerusalem District Court for the evidentiary stage of his corruption trial, April 5, 2021. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Pool)

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

Netanyahu, who denies wrongdoing, has only been present at two of the hearings.

In addition to the charges in Case 4000, Netanyahu is charged with fraud and breach of trust in two other cases, one of which also involves suspicions of trading regulatory favors for positive media coverage.

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