Amended Indictment in Netanyahu Corruption Case Says PM Interfered With News Site Coverage 155 Times

Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel
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Benjamin Netanyahu at the district court of Jerusalem on May 24, 2020, during the first day of his corruption trial.
Benjamin Netanyahu at the district court of Jerusalem on May 24, 2020, during the first day of his corruption trial.Credit: RONEN ZVULUN / POOL / AFP
Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel

An amended indictment against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu filed by the State Prosecutor’s Office on Sunday details 230 instances in which Netanyahu or members of his family sought to improve coverage of them on the Walla news website while he served as communications minister.

According to the new indictment, Netanyahu was directly or indirectly involved in 155 of these instances, and was aware that his family members were frequently and systematically making additional demands to skew the website’s coverage. Furthermore, the indictment alleges that Netanyahu initiated 85 of the cases without any request by family members.

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Last month, a panel of judges accepted a request by Netanyahu’s attorneys and ordered the State Prosecutor’s Office to rewrite the indictment to distinguish between Netanyahu’s own request for more positive coverage and those of his family members. The revision is not expected to cause any delays in the trial, and the next hearing in the presence of the defendants remains scheduled for January 13. The defendants are expected to submit their responses to the indictment on January 11.

Although the revisions do not alter the allegations in a substantial way, they do improve the defense’s position. First of all, removing generalizations narrows the prosecution’s room to maneuver. Second, distinguishing between Netanyahu’s requests and those of his family gives the defense attorneys an opportunity to try and reduce the role the prime minister played by sowing doubt about his knowledge of the requests made by his family to skew the coverage.

Netanyahu and Shaul Elovitch, then controlling shareholder of Bezeq, Walla’s owner, allegedly engaged in a quid pro pro in which Netanyahu – who was serving as communications minister at the time of the alleged deal – led regulatory steps directly tied to Elovitch’s businesses and interests that yielded the tycoon some $500 million.

In one example alleged by the indictment, in June of 2013 indictment, Netanyahu intervened personally when he sent Elovitch and site editor Ilan Yeshua “a demand to remove a report on the high cost of the hotel in which the defendant Netanyahu stayed during his visit to Warsaw.” According to the indictment, the two acceded to the demand. In May of 2014, when Netanyahu allegedly initiated “a demand to remove a report dealing with a criminal investigation” against him. The demand was passed on to Elovitch and Yeshua and was fulfilled, the indictment claims.

Also according to the indictment, Netanyahu was involved when the site was presented in December of 2014 with “a demand not to post a report relating to Sara Netanyahu’s hair.” This demand was fulfilled, the indictment charges. In another alleged instance in September of 2016, a demand was submitted to cover a visit by Netanyahu and his wife to an exhibit of art by the slain soldier Hadar Goldin at the UN. According to the indictment, Netanyahu was involved in this demand, which was passed on by his former aide, Nir Hefetz, to Elovitch and Yeshua, who agreed.

The last request with which the indictment claims Netanyahu was involved allegedly occurred on December 24, 2016: a demand to edit a report on a speech by Netanyahu “against the Obama administration and the United Nations.” According to the indictment, this request was also passed on by Hefetz to Elovitch and Yeshua, who accepted it

The amended indictment contains a new clause stating that “[a]side from the demands he made, either directly or through intermediaries, the defendant Netanyahu was also involved in other demands made by his family members, either directly or through intermediaries. The defendant Netanyahu was also aware that his family was making considerable and systematic demands in addition to those in which he was involved.”

Moreover, in every instance where the original indictment said, “requests by Netanyahu and his family,” it was changed to “requests by Netanyahu and his family with his knowledge.

The original indictment stated that “[d]emands to intervene in reports on the website were submitted by the defendant Netanyahu and his family members to the Elovitches [Shaul and his wife, Iris] using both direct and indirect channels.” Later on, it said that most of the requests submitted by the family were passed on to the Elovitches by Hefetz, who has turned state’s evidence in the case. The indictment alleged that “Hefetz submitted a large number of the demands made by Sara and Yair Netanyahu to the defendant Netanyahu for approval before passing them to the defendant Elovitch and Yeshua. The defendant Netanyahu was generally involved in the content of the demands, and sometimes even in their wording, and kept track of whether the Elovitches were responding to the demands, sometimes even making additional demands to correct the way they responded until he got a result that satisfied him.”

Last month, the court told the prosecution that “quite a few substantive and relevant details relevant to the defense of the defendants are missing.” To that end, the judges instructed prosecutors “to differentiate in the indictment between Defendant One [Netanyahu] and his family members, who are not defendants, both in the details of the demands attributed to each of them and in terms of what was allegedly ‘given’ to each of them.”

The judges stated that “[i]f the argument of the [the prosecution] is that the demands made by the family members and the benefit they received were with the knowledge of the defendant, it must explicitly say so.” Furthermore, “[t]he accuser must submit details of the benefits that it is being claimed were given and received as bribery, with dates, if they are known. It should also state, if known, through whom the parties acted.”

The judges also said that “[t]here is no place for generalizations and a lack of detail using such phrases like ‘inter alia,’ or ‘including’ or ‘significant demands,’ ‘various cases,’ ‘other workers,’ ‘various sources,’ ‘agents acting on his behalf,’ and the like.” As a result, the prosecution had to revise 21 clauses in the indictment that were considered not detailed enough.

The court also ordered the removal of an appendix to the indictment headlined “Examples of how the Elovitches fulfilled the demands by the defendant Netanyahu to intervene in reports on the Walla website.” The judges ruled that the appendix contained evidence “that doesn’t belong in the indictment,” but would be discussed during the trial. They also asked the prosecution to distinguish between Elovitch, the former controlling shareholder of Bezeq (which owned Walla), and his wife, though both are accused of giving Netanyahu a bribe. The court wanted the prosecution to “distinguish which approaches were made, and when, to Defendant Three [Iris Elovitch] and what is attributed to her … and Defendant Two [Shaul Elovitch], in every clause in which there is a generalization of the actions of both defendants.”

The prosecution likely hopes the number of requests adds up to a critical mass that will persuade the judges that the scope of the skewed coverage is enough to be deemed a bribe, and that frequent requests testify to Netanyahu’s expectation of results.

The task of the defense attorneys will be to undermine that quantitative argument, and they can be expected to attack each single in an effort to show there is no proof of Netanyahu’s involvement, and to minimize the number of alleged requests. 

With regard to some of the requests, the defense attorneys will likely argue that they were made to several media outlets and that there is thus nothing special about the requests made to Walla, mitigating the claim of quid pro quos. The requests that remain will likely be presented as typical of the relationship between a prime minister and the media.

The requests for better coverage that were made by Sara and Yair Netanyahu, of which Netanyahu was allegedly not aware, will nevertheless serve the prosecution. The prosecution can argue that while Netanyahu may not have been aware of every single specific request, there is evidence that he knew about at least some of them, and that he knew of a communications channel between his family members and Elovitch. 

The prosecution hopes to use this logic in the separate case against Netanyahu alleging that he and his family received lavish gifts in exchange for favors: that even if there is no evidence that Netanyahu knew about each individual gift, he knew about some of them. This, the prosecution will argue, is enough to prove the charge of breach of trust.

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