‘Bad Phrasing’: Netanyahu Backtracks on Call to Jail Journalist

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wears a mask as he looks on during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem May 31, 2020
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wears a mask as he looks on during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem May 31, 2020Credit: Ronen Zvulun/ REUTERS

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu retracted a Likud statement Thursday that said Israeli journalist Raviv Drucker should be arrested and jailed for a news segment revealing recordings of telecommunication tycoon Shaul Elovich and his wife, which demonstrated how he sought to tilt news coverage in the prime minister’s favor.

"I'm not a fan of jailing journalists, it's absurd, it was very bad phrasing of the spokesmanship," Netanyahu said. "I'm for variety and criticism, and no one has taken more criticism than me. It was very bad phrasing."

Netanyahu added that "journalists cannot obstruct justice," referring to his ongoing trial in a case which involves Elovich. 

Elovich is a majority shareholder in telecommunications company Bezeq, who was indicted in November in connection with one of the corruption cases against Netanyahu.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu's Likud party had published a statement on his behalf, saying “the fact that the authorities don’t arrest Drucker and let him run wild with leaks, blackmail and threats against witnesses only reinforces the feeling that the game against Netanyahu is rigged.

Raviv Drucker at a conference, January 15, 2017. Credit: Moti Milrod

"In a perfect world, Raviv Drucker would go to jail today for publishing criminal leaks and obstructing justice, but when the media’s goal is to topple Netanyahu, the leader of the right wing, at any price, it appears that anything goes.”

'Agenda against the news'

Netanyahu and the Eloviches were indicted for bribery in what is known as Case 4000; Netanyahu is accused of having taken regulatory steps to benefit Bezeq resulting in some $500 million for the telecommunications firm, in exchange for favorable news coverage on Bezeq's Walla News website. It marked the first time a sitting prime minister was indicted for the crime.

On Wednesday, Drucker published additional recordings of conversations between the Elovich couple and Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua, about giving Netanyahu and his family more favorable coverage in.

“What Netanyahu is doing … I would never have believed he could do things like that. I feel indebted to him all the time,” Elovich told Yeshua in July 2015. "And I feel like we don't give him anything. So we gave him something during the election," he said, referring to the coverage.

A year later, according to the recordings, the situation seemed to escalate: The demands from the Netanyahu family grew greater. Iris Elovich pinned this on Netanyahu's son Yair, in telling Yeshua that “he comes and tells them [his parents] 'do you think they put your photograph in the headlines? Of course not, they stuck it at the end.’ Do you understand? He monitors these things all day long. He’s on the Internet all day.”

At the same time Yeshua faced growing opposition from Walla's journalists, but his attempts to give the appearance of balanced coverage were always met with the same reply by the Eloviches.

The journalists "are fed up,” Yeshua told Iris. “When you don’t let them post one article after another, when I edit each and every article, and they can’t post, in practice they're not editing anymore, you understand?”

Iris Elovich replied: “And we have our own agenda, and our agenda, Ilan, is to make it home safely every day.”

Yeshua cautioned: “At some point they’ll eat us alive, we'll be smeared in the newspapers, God help us.”

Iris Elovich replied that “every newspaper has an agenda, correct?”

Yeshua said, “yes, but this is an agenda against publishing the news. Listen, it's impossible.”

In November 2016, Iris Elovich expressed her dissatisfaction Walla journalists she viewed as too critical of Netanyahu. She said that political reporter Tal Shalev would need to be calmed down: “Look, she’s a leftist, but we said she’d be a token leftist… she’s become a Doberman.” She added later, "We need to fix this quick. [Netanyahu] will stay put for a long time. I told Shaul that for this group, I'm ready to sell my soul to Satan."

A statement from Elovich said that he "refuses to conduct his trial in the media. He denies the suspicions against him and whatever he has to say he will bring before the court.”

Iris Elovich said she “will conduct her trial in Jerusalem District Court and not in any other forum” and that “the picture emerging from the evidence in the case shows that Iris Elovich has not committed any crimes.”

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