Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s defense in his bribery trial continued on Monday in its attempt to show that the Walla news site commonly gave favorable coverage to powerful figures, not just Netanyahu.
Attorney Boaz Ben Zur presented evidence of correspondence between the prosecution’s key witness, former Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua, and a number of public figures and businesspeople.
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Yeshua responded: “These are normative thinks that happen. What happened with your client didn’t happen anywhere else.” To which Ben Zur replied, “We will peel away at this statement, day by day.”
Ben Zur presented messages that Yeshua exchanged with former Labor Party chairman Isaac Herzog. “If you need anything, feel free to speak to me,” the CEO wrote to Herzog in 2016 and later complied with Herzog’s request not to showcase an item about him being questioned by police.
In court on Monday, Yeshua explained: “Herzog was really discriminated against by us, battered by us. … During the (2015) election campaign. I didn’t feel right about it, so I went along with his request and I agree that it was the wrong thing to do. There are just a couple of incidents like that, which only go to illustrate the difference between that and the biased coverage in favor of the prime minister and his wife.”
Asked why Herzog contacted him,” Yeshua said: “All the politicians knew that the coverage at Walla was biased in the prime minister’s favor and that the CEO was intervening, and they complained that they were being discriminated against.”
In another exchange that Ben Zur presented, Yeshua pressed Walla editor Avi Alkalay to promote a flattering item about a kindergarten in Tel Aviv started by Avigdor Lieberman’s son Kobi.
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“He (Kobi) met with me and asked us to promote it. … Shaul (Elovitch, former controller of Walla and Netanyahu’s co-defendant) wanted me to please ‘the Russian,’ he said the Russian was very important to him. There’s a series of written messages from Shaul from 2014 and it gets more intense in 2016, when he needs Lieberman’s signature on something,” Yeshua testified.
Yeshua later said that he also met with former Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov. Asked about the subject of the meeting, he replied, “Favorable coverage, apparently.” In 2012, Yeshua and Misezhnikov’s adviser Amnon Lieberman discussed a positive item about the minister and a survey published by Walla. When Lieberman asked how long the survey would be online, Yeshua answered, “As long as you want.”
Other correspondence indicated Yeshua’s intervention on behalf of certain businesses, including El Al. For example, he asked Alkalay to place a flattering item on the company, published at the request of CEO David Maimon, at the top of the business section. In a message he sent to Maimon, Yeshua wrote: “I want to help out with the (airline’s dispute with its) pilots.” In court, Yeshua explained: “At the time there was a battle going on between the management and the pilots’ committee. I guess the item was against the pilots.” Asked why the site intervened in the labor dispute, Yeshua said: “El Al is a major advertiser, and the company CEO decides on the budgets.”
Ben Zur went on to present messages from many others who wanted Yeshua to intervene in Walla’s journalistic content, among them executives from Bank Hapoalim, Coca Cola, Israel Hayom and Better Place. “I don’t see anyone contacting you and you saying, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t.’ All I see is that you take care of it, over and over again,” Ben Zur told him. Yeshua replied: “Many of these are friends of Shaul, some are advertisers.”
Another example Ben Zur presented concerned a complaint by Judy Nir Mozes about the site’s treatment of her former husband, Silvan Shalom, to which Yeshua responded: “It won’t happen anymore.” Yeshua said in court that he acted as he did toward the Mozes family and Shalom at Elovitch’s instructions. In another example, Yeshua replied to comic Adir Miller’s complaint about “your unflattering coverage on the site” and promised to “keep an eye on it.”
Ben Zur berated Yeshua: “When we read your correspondence with the whole world – politicians, businesspeople, public figures – you always grovel and do their bidding in the crudest, most extreme way. Therefore, I say that this is how you behave with everyone.”To which Yeshua replied, “Rubbish.”
After Ben Zur called him “the ultimate sycophant,” Yeshua said, “I was the CEO of a company that is dependent on advertisers. When you collect all the cases that you cite from a period of 13 years, they are nothing compared to what other CEOs in the industry do. Flattery is part of the life of a CEO. You don’t raise money by insulting people. As for politicians, practically all of them were ones that Shaul wanted to please for various reasons, and I acted accordingly.”