How Netanyahu’s Right-hand Man Silenced the PM’s Critics

Law enforcement officials now see the Bezeq-Walla! case as the engine pulling the cigars-and-champagne and Yedioth Ahronoth-Israel Hayom cases

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the Cyber Week conference at Tel Aviv University, Israel, June 20, 2018
\ AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS

The Walla! news site started to slant its media coverage in favor of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after site owner Shaul Elovitch received a study which found that more than two-thirds of the opinion pieces about the prime minister were hostile to him.

One senior writer stopped writing critical articles about Netanyahu following the growing pressure on the site. He wanted to keep his job. But even when he confined his barbs to the social networks, he was advised by one of his bosses to tone his tweets down.

“They have you in their crosshairs,” he was told, and he followed the advice.

According to the three-page study, which analyzed some 90 opinion pieces about the prime minister between December 2014 and the summer of 2015, more than two thirds were hostile to Netanyahu, some 20 percent were neutral and only a few were favorable.

Elovitch received the document from Communications Ministry director general Shlomo Filber in August 2015, a few weeks after Filber completed the Bezeq-Yes deal for him. It is not known who conducted the study.

At a later stage someone gave Elovitch two folders with the articles mentioned in the study. The message was clear: Toe the line. And Elovitch did. Since then Walla!’s articles section became more restrained. One exception was an article that criticized Netanyahu’s failure to do enough for animal welfare.

All this shows not only how strong Netanyahu’s hold on Walla! was, but also how the central players in the case acted to slant the media coverage in exchange for government steps in Bezeq’s favor. Netanayhu’s adviser, Nir Hefetz, served as Netanyahu’s courier for slanting the coverage. He was also asked to pass messages regarding the Communications Ministry’s regulation of Bezeq.

The court has already ruled that when Elovitch’s wife Iris acted to slant news coverage, “she was well aware of her actions’ significance. They were clearly aimed to gain achievements for the group.”

When Sara Netanyahu expected to receive favorable coverage from the site, she didn’t hesitate to link it to “what we’ve done for them.” Filber and Hefetz’s testimonies – as well as the proximity in time between Walla!’s mobilization on Netanyahu’s behalf in the election campaign and the government’s far-reaching move in Bezeq’s favor – show that these issues were related in Netanyahu’s thinking as well.

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During the campaign, the prime minister was the main benefactor of the slanted coverage. After the election, Sara and elder son Yair were primarily involved in instructing Hefetz what to do.

Netanyahu keeps telling his confidants that he will see it as a resounding failure if Attorney General Avichai Mendlelblit indicts him. It is doubtful whether Mendelblit shares this feeling.

If Netanyahu indeed faces an indictment on the Bezeq-Walla! case, and looks back soberly, he will probably regret one crucial decision he made due to hubris: taking the communications portfolio for himself and appointing Filber director general.

On the eve of the appointment, the evidence indicates, the boss tasked Filber with advancing a deal between Bezeq and Yes, both owned by Elovitch, for the benefit of interested parties. The deal dramatically improved the tycoon’s cash flow. Filber’s success exceeded all expectations: On June 23, 2015, a mere three weeks after his appointment, the deal was completed.

Netanyahu, who signed his approval to the deal that very day, now claims he was only routinely signing papers given to him for his signature. But the plot details suggest a different story, some of which were provided by Filber.

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According to the suspicion, Elovitch knew very well why the prime minister had pushed to approve the Bezeq-Yes deal: Elovitch presented himself, in talks with senior Bezeq officials, as one of those responsible for Netanyahu’s election victory.

Netanyahu denies this thesis vehemently. This week, right after he was questioned by police, he claimed there had been “a flood of venomous reports” on Walla! all the way up to the eve of the March 17, 2015 election.

Law enforcement officials now see the Bezeq-Walla! case as the engine pulling the cigars-and-champagne and Yedioth Ahronoth-Israel Hayom cases. They understand that a crude slant of media coverage in favor of a politician is a gift, a perk, a bribe.

In response, Elovitch’s lawyer Jacques Chen said, “It takes a huge amount of restraint not to respond to the distortion of facts and lies given to us for response. Since a police investigation is taking place, we are prevented from doing so.”

The Prime Minister’s Office said: “We won’t respond to all the groundless claims made, but suffice to cite the reports released in the last few days that the prime minister not only didn’t get favorable coverage in Walla!, but the reverse – the coverage was hostile to him. The hostility increased in the days before the 2015 elections, and the report that the Bezeq-Yes deal was signed on the recommendation of the Communications Ministry’s legal adviser is enough to understand that the case is collapsing.”