Netanyahu, Media Tycoon Say Favorable Coverage Was Driven by Ideology, Not Bribery

Bezeq-Walla owner tells court that positive coverage of Netanyahu sought ‘to balance website’s negative stance’ against him, rather than to receive benefits

Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel
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Shaul Elovitch arrives at his trial at the Jerusalem District Court, July 19, 2020.
Shaul Elovitch arrives at his trial at the Jerusalem District Court, July 19, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel

The lawyers representing Shaul and Iris Elovitch, who are accused of bribing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for regulatory benefits for their news website in exchange for favorable coverage for the prime minister, said that acceding to Netanyahu's requests was not a bribe, but an ideological move.

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The two attorneys presented their response to the indictment to the Jerusalem District Court on Monday morning, in which they told the court that they were rebutting the charges against them, and that acceding to Netanyahu’s requests from the Walla website they owned was not part of a bribery transaction, but an attempt to balance slanted media coverage.

Netanyahu’s attorneys also claim that his appeals to Elovitch stemmed from ideological reasons, in an attempt to change the character of Israeli media. “One could say that the media in Israel have for many years had a leftist bias. The prime minister believes that a major way of attaining some balance is the establishment and cementing of right-wing outlets, which can hold ongoing debates with left-wing media outlets," they wrote. 

"In this context, the prime minister interacted with the owners of several media outlets as a matter of policy," they continued. "This is done by other politicians as well."

Netanyahu, who is accused of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, as well as Arnon Mozes, who is also charged with offering Netanyahu a bribe, also submitted their responses to the indictments against them on Monday.

Shaul Elovitch’s attorney, Jacques Chen, wrote that “it never crossed my client’s mind that by acceding to requests to ensure positive coverage for the prime minister and his family on the Walla website, or by initiating such coverage himself, he was giving a bribe. His intervention not only accorded with his views and positions, but was an attempt to balance, even slightly, in his mind, the website’s political line, as well as its extremely negative, petty and rankling attitude to Prime Minister Netanyahu and his family.”

Attorney Michal Rosen-Ozer, who is representing Iris Elovitch, wrote that “with regard to Iris Elovitch, the absence rings loud. This includes her absence in the world of business or in regulatory affairs, her non-presence at decision-making junctures, her lack of contact with regulators and her lack of any connection to Prime Minister Netanyahu.

"This absence is not filled by the marital relationship between her and Shaul Elovitch, and the attempt of the prosecution to do so, based on stereotypes, is annoying and baseless. Iris Elovitch is not one of her husband’s ribs, she was created independently, a person in her own right. She has what’s hers, and doesn’t have what isn’t," Rosen-Ozer wrote.

Shaul Elovitch further claimed that the prosecution has no claim concerning a specific occasion in which a bribery transaction took place between the two. “The prosecution argues that from the unfolding of events, one can learn about the existence of an expectation or an understanding, even if implicit, even if its timing is unclear.”

Moreover, said Elovitch, the regulatory benefits described in the indictment are “trivial government actions, conforming to the law and carried out by Netanyahu based on the work of professionals and their recommendations, and on a version [of regulatory changes] they brought to him for signing.”

He added that the gaps between the indictment and the reality “express the difference between legal technicalities, which shoehorn selective facts into molds describing ‘criminal components,’ creating a false reality that claims to describe transgressions where none exist, and the understanding of human behavior that does not constitute criminal wrongdoing. This is part of an indictment which is unprecedented anywhere in the world, stretching the limits of bribery to unheard-of realms.”

The next hearing of Netanyahu’s trial, which was scheduled for last week but postponed due to the lockdown, is expected to take place on February 8, with him in attendance. The hearing will deal with cases 1000 (“lavish gifts”), 2000 (Yedioth Ahronoth) and 4000, and Netanyahu and the other accused, Shaul and Iris Elovitch and Yediot owner Arnon Mozes, will have to respond to the indictments against them.

State prosecutors submitted a revised indictment against Netanyahu earlier this month. In case 4000, the Bezeq-Walla case, the indictment gives details of 230 instances in which Netanyahu and his family members tried to change reporting about them on Walla, with the prime minister involved directly or through a mediator in 155 of these attempts.

According to the prosecution, Netanyahu was aware that his family was trying to alter coverage systematically and repeatedly. The indictment shows that 197 of these requests were successful, as well as citing 85 cases in which the website gave favorable coverage on its own, with no requests made.

The number of requests made by Netanyahu and his family will be important in the evidentiary phase of Case 4000. Prosecutors are expected to argue that the number of requests attests to an expectation that they would be acceded to, as well as to his awareness that Elovitch was committed to him as part of the bribery deal.

Netanyahu’s attorneys are expected to try and convince the judges that the true number of requests made by Netanyahu is much smaller. Part of this will be based on the claim that similar requests were made to other media outlets, which precludes using them as proof of a give-and-take relationship with Walla. His attorneys will also argue that Netanyahu was unaware of demands made of Walla by his wife Sara and son Yair.

In their response to the court, Netanyahu’s attorneys again rebutted the claims made against the prime minister, arguing that the amended indictment exposes a shocking fact: “The prime minister is being indicted for actions he was not investigated for! This fact illustrates how absurd the files against him are.” They again argued that the investigation commenced without the approval of the attorney general, in contrast to what is stipulated in the Basic Law on government.

According to the defense team, “of the 150 instances in which the amended indictment claims that the prime minister interfered in media coverage at Walla through mediators, he was asked only about some of these. How can he be accused of incidents he wasn’t asked about? This seems like an attempt to depose a strong right-wing prime minister. This joins the fact learned last week, whereby the investigation commenced without the approval of the attorney general, as required by law, which casts a shadow on the entire indictment and process.”

Moreover, Netanyahu’s attorneys claim that the prosecution is charging him with a violation that is not recognized in Israeli law. They asked that the clauses regarding the supposed favorable coverage Netanyahu requested be deleted from the appendix to the indictment in those instances he was not asked about. They said he was asked only about 15 instances in which prosecutors claimed he received favorable coverage as part of a bribery deal. He was not asked about the other 300 instances. “He was not questioned about 90 percent of the cases mentioned in Appendix A of the indictment. The prosecutor’s abstention from doing so is a serious flaw in the defendant’s right to a fair process,” they wrote.

Attorneys Navit Negev and Iris Niv-Sabag, who are representing Arnon Mozes in Case 2000, told the court that he was denying the charges against him. “Mozes totally rejects the claim that he offered and promised a bribe to Netanyahu. … Statements on this matter regarding a law were part of a legitimate discussion which constituted lobbying, part of customary exchanges, legitimate and acceptable, between politicians or public figures and media people. The indictment is based on an erroneous interpretation of what was said in these discussions while ignoring the entirety of what was said and the legitimate exchanges that Netanyahu and Mozes conducted for years,” they wrote.

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