While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was sitting in the dock and listening to prosecutor Liat Ben Ari’s opening speech, President Reuven Rivlin was starting his round of consultations with party leaders, after which he’ll decide which of them to ask to form a government.
Seven years ago, Netanyahu made a supreme effort to prevent Rivlin from realizing his life’s dream of being elected president, fearing that the man who had proven to be a dominant Knesset speaker wouldn’t rush to bow to his will.
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To this end, he seriously considered throwing his support to Silvan Shalom or Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, until both candidates became mired in scandal – claims of sexual harassment against the former and a criminal investigation against the latter on suspicion of taking bribes. In his distress, Netanyahu even pondered an alternative scheme: postponing the presidential election and passing a law to abolish the institution, or at least empty it of content.
A few days before that election in 2014, Bezeq owner Shaul Elovitch ordered Ilan Yeshua, the CEO of Bezeq’s news website, Walla, to use the site to promote Netanyahu’s plan to postpone the election. A delay is necessary, Elovitch said, “to locate the gun” that destroyed both Ben-Eliezer and Shalom as candidates.
Netanyahu was convinced that the person behind both events was Arnon Mozes, publisher of the daily Yedioth Ahronoth, Elovitch added. Rumor had it that Mozes wanted to see Dalia Itzik as president.
As far as is known, this theory was baseless. But Elovitch himself believed it. “The other big guy succeeded,” he said, referring to Mozes, immediately after Ben-Eliezer was forced to quit the race. “He’s a genius in his field.”
Yeshua obeyed his orders. Later that day, he told his boss that an item sympathetic to the postponement idea “is now being pushed to a million smartphones and will soon become the lead headline.”
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But meanwhile, the wind had shifted. Elovitch now wanted Walla to promote a different candidate on Netanyahu’s behalf – former Supreme Court Justice Dalia Dorner.
“He claims there’s a drift toward the justice and it’s very important to strengthen the trend,” Elovitch said of Netanyahu. This, of course, was before the prime minister declared war on the justice system.
Elovitch had his doubts about Netanyahu’s political judgment, but ordered Yeshua to “run with it.” And Yeshua did. “We’re bolstering Dalia in the next few minutes,” he told Elovitch.
“Also, an item about the boy will go up soon,” he added, referring to Netanyahu’s son Avner, who had just finished a year of service with distinction.
The above is one anecdote out of hundreds that form the basis for the bribery charge against Netanyahu. Out of his deep loathing for Mozes (with whom, incidentally, he also later negotiated), Netanyahu forged a corrupt alliance with Elovitch that enabled the government to take control of a popular internet news site in exchange for regulatory benefits worth hundreds of millions of shekels.
Yeshua, who carried out this deal in practice, took the witness stand on Monday and explained how the system worked. He said early in his testimony that Walla was Israel’s leading internet news site, thereby destroying one of Netanyahu’s main defense arguments – that it was a negligible media outlet, “a cat-and-dog site,” as he put it.
In late 2012, Yeshua said, Elovitch started intervening in Walla’s content and raining demands on him, “the vast majority of which related to the prime minister and his wife.” Yeshua described the tension between his need to obey these orders and his desire for journalistic independence as “a nightmare.”
The main pressure came during election campaigns, or when Elovitch needed regulatory relief for Bezeq, he said, adding that Elovitch “told me Walla weighs a gram and Bezeq 100 tons.”
The words Yeshua used to describe the implications of this alliance between capital and government are usually reserved for sex crimes or domestic violence. He described the way Elovitch and his wife treated him as “abuse” and the way Walla’s editorial staff responded to the pressure as “a mechanism of appeasement.”
The Elovitches wanted to please the government, Yeshua wanted to please his boss and journalists interested in keeping their jobs wanted to please him. And this is how freedom of the press at Walla was destroyed.
“We became an obedient site,” Yeshua admitted. “We were trained.”
The intervention didn’t end with downplaying criticism of Netanyahu and promoting articles that flattered him and his family. Yeshua was also asked to promote articles attacking Netanyahu’s rivals, first and foremost Naftali Bennett, then head of the Habayit Hayehudi party.
“What did you call Bennett?” prosecutor Judith Tirosh asked him. Yeshua replied, “Me and Elovitch? ‘The naughty religious guy.’”
Netanyahu’s lawyer, Boaz Ben Zur, interjected, “We understand that Bennett is at the President’s Residence today.” The implication was that the questions about Bennett – who is seeking to become the new prime minister – stemmed from political motivations on the part of both the prosecution and the witness.
“This is your campaign speech for Bennett,” added Jacques Chen, Elovitch’s lawyer. And this is how the consultations at the President’s Residence trickled into the courtroom.
Monday’s hearing was just the warmup. In the coming days, the court will hear tape recordings of the case’s protagonists and see hundreds of WhatsApp messages revealing what went on at Walla in detail. Next, the defense attorneys will use the cross-examination to push Yeshua on what they view as discrepancies between his unequivocal statements on Monday and what he said during police interrogations.
Rivlin’s term as president ends in July. The defendants in this case, who were so preoccupied with the last presidential election, will certainly follow the next one closely as well. After all, whoever replaces Rivlin may well be the person who decides their fate.