There were many telling moments in the twelve hours of testimony by the first witness for the prosecution in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial.
Ilan Yeshua, the former CEO of the news site Walla, gave his testimony over three days in the Jerusalem District Court last week, and is continuing this week. Walla is at the center of Case 4000, in which the prime minister and Walla’s previous owners, Shaul and Iris Elovitch, have been charged with bribery; as then-communications minister, Netanyahu is accused of taking steps that benefited the Bezeq company, controlled by Elovitch, in return for favorable coverage in Walla.
One sentence Yeshua told the court encapsulates his entire account. He recalled how disturbed he was “there was feedback coming to me from other people that Nir Hefetz” – then the spokesperson for the Netanyahu family, now a state witness in the trial – “was saying that Walla is already his.”
At the heart of the prosecution’s case is the contention that the Elovitch couple were willing to effectively cede control of their website in order to further their wider business interests, and specifically to secure the goodwill of the prime minister, who had also appointed himself communications minister in 2014.
As a master campaigner who takes nothing for granted, Benjamin Netanyahu begins every election campaign knowing he could lose. But he doesn’t think he deserves to lose – Netanyahu is convinced that if the playing field had been level, he would have won every single one of the ten elections in which he has lead Likud so far. He puts the fact that he has so far lost two elections (1999, 2006) and drawn four stalemates (2019-21) down to what he perceives as relentlessly unfair and hostile media. Since he believes that the Israeli media is implacably in the other camp, it is therefore only fair that he has his “own media,” as he has bluntly called it in private.
That was Netanyahu’s main conclusion from his defeat in 1999 to Ehud Barak, which ended his first period in office. In the early hours of May 18, 1999, after he had given his concession speech, he stood on the balcony of his suite in Tel Aviv’s Hilton hotel, looking out over the sea at the invisible black horizon. “Next time, I will need my own media,” he told a small group of benefactors and trusted advisors. And he has been working on acquiring that media ever since.
- Netanyahu trial: PM aides vetted senior appointments at news site, key witness says
- Netanyahu's corruption trial shows he received something far more valuable than money
- Netanyahu liable to concoct ‘national emergency’ to keep himself in power
Netanyahu’s obsession with the media is an ideological matter – he fervently believes that control of the public consciousness is possible and that the media is controlled by left-wing elements who have achieved that control over Israeli minds. But it’s also deeply personal, in a way that it can only be for someone who was once the media’s darling, as Netanyahu was in the first decade of his political career. He was beloved as Israel’s chief propaganda mouthpiece to the world as ambassador to the United Nations and deputy foreign minister; he then found himself increasingly on the receiving end of the media’s less positive attention from the moment he became the Likud leader in 1993.
The warfare between Netanyahu and the media began during the Likud leadership election, when reporters wouldn’t portray him as the victim when he claimed to have been the subject of blackmail over an extramarital affair he had admitted to on television. Instead, they were more interested in discovering the identity of the woman with which he was having sexual relations. Hostilities intensified later in 1993, when the Oslo agreements between the Rabin government and the PLO came to light, and reached their peak when most of the media accepted and amplified the narrative that Netanyahu had contributed to Rabin’s assassination through his opposition to Oslo.
When Netanyahu still managed to win the election by a hair’s breadth in 1996, it was as if he had vanquished both Labor’s candidate and the media. The tone of that relationship for the next three years of his first term as prime minister was set. It’s not hard to see why Netanyahu left office with the conclusion that he needed his “own media.”
Ever since, Netanyahu has been urging friendly billionaires to invest in Israeli news organizations. His oldest benefactor Ron Lauder, who acquired a controlling stake in what was then Channel 10 (now part of Channel 13), but wouldn’t go as far as Netanyahu wanted in forcing its journalists to follow his line.
But Netanyahu’s major breakthrough came with the arrival of Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miri on the scene. They didn’t bother themselves with an existing company, and instead poured hundreds of millions of Adelson’s casino dollars into a new Netanyahu-worshiping paper, Israel Hayom, in 2007, with hundreds of thousands of copies to be distributed for free across Israel.
Israel Hayom was to become so important to Netanyahu that five years later, when the Knesset was about to pass a law that would have required the paper to charge money for each copy, he was prepared to fire ministers, dissolve the Knesset and go to elections nearly three years early, just to prevent that from happening. Israel Hayom was never enough. Netanyahu was only too aware that its influence on the national agenda was limited by its lack of journalistic credibility. But it still had its uses.
Israel Hayom was not just intended to be a source of news. Part of the original goal of Adelson and Netanyahu was to use it to pressure other Israeli newspapers, especially the hostile Yedioth Ahronot, by eating into their advertising income. This nearly worked, as attested to by the recordings from meetings between Netanyahu and Yedioth owner Arnon Mozes, in which they discussed Yedioth adopting a friendlier tone to the prime minister in exchange for his help in limiting the circulation of Israel Hayom. In the end, nothing came of this arrangement, but the recordings are now the basis for Case 2000, in which Netanyahu and Mozes are charged with fraud and breach of trust, and Mozes is also accused of trying to bribe Netanyahu.
In Yeshua’s testimony last Wednesday, it turned out that Israel Hayom had another use. At one point, Yeshua told the court, he and his journalists began self-censoring their reports, preempting the inevitable complaints from Elovitch and Netanyahu’s representatives. But how would they know what they could publish?
“Israel Hayom became my right-hand marker,” Yeshua said. “I’m not allowed to run critical reports, but if (they already) appeared there, I used it as a kosher certificate and run it. Do I have to be more righteous than the pope?”
Yeshua and Walla had no direct connection with Adelson’s free daily, but the existence of Israel Hayom – a daily newspaper everyone knew would never publish a story against Netanyahu’s wishes – created the ecosystem within which other news organizations hoping to please the prime minister could operate. Since then, as other news organizations served Netanyahu’s agenda to various degrees, Israel Hayom has continued to set standards for them. It does so both with the stories it chooses to cover and by employing pundits and columnists who sing the prime minister’s praises and attack his critics. They appear on other platforms as well, such Army Radio and Channels 13 and 20, which have become much more pro-Netanyahu in recent years. They are also “my own media.”
The defense will have number of avenues of attack on the narrative being established by the prosecution. They will claim that since Yeshua was never directly in contact with Netanyahu, there is no proof of him delivering anything in return. (The state witnesses Hefetz and Shlomo Filber, the former director-general of the Communications Ministry under Netanyahu, are expected to provide that angle for the prosecution instead).
Then they will dissect Walla’s coverage of Netanyahu, hoping to prove there were plenty of critical reports as well. In public, Netanyahu’s proxies have been talking for a long time of “two and a half reports” and saying that there was nothing different here from the normal relationship between politicians and news organizations, and that only Netanyahu is being prosecuted for this.
Last Monday, Yeshua said that in all his 13 years as Walla’s CEO, the amount of calls and complaints he’d had from others politicians was less than just one week of pressure from Netanyahu’s people.
Whether or not the judges ultimately rule that this constituted part of a criminal relationship remains unknown, but at this early stage in the case, it is impossible to escape the conclusion that back in 2014, for Netanyahu, Walla was “my own media.”