Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s defense attorney sought to show in court Tuesday that the owners of the Walla news site did not tilt coverage in Netanyahu’s favor to please him, but only to balance out what they lamented as the site’s left-leaning slant.
Attorney Boaz Ben Zur took this line as he continued his cross-examination of the prosecution’s key witness, Ilan Yeshua, former CEO of Walla, in the Jerusalem District Court. In this case, Netanyahu is charged with giving Shaul Elovitch, then controlling shareholder in Bezeq, hundreds of millions of shekels in regulatory benefits in return for positive coverage on Walla, which was owned by Bezeq. It’s legitimate for a newspaper owner to set editorial policy, but this policy must be made public, Yeshua stated during his cross-examination.
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To establish his claim, Ben Zur presented several text messages from Elovitch and his wife Iris, who are Netanyahu’s co-defendants in the case. One said, “For two days already, the lead article has attacked IDF officers; we’ve become a radical leftist site.” Another, referring to an interview with a pro-Palestinian rapper, demanded, “Why promote this worldview on our site?”
Ben Zur submitted text messages by Yeshua, including one to the head of the news desk, Michal Klein, which said, “Our editorial policy isn’t that of Haaretz.”
Ben Zur also argued that an interview with Netanyahu shortly before the 2015 election – which the indictment describes as one of the benefits Walla gave Netanyahu in exchange for regulatory favors for its parent company, Bezeq – was actually a favor to Likud from Yeshua aimed at obtaining advertising from the party, rather than a benefit to Netanyahu personally.
Walla, Ben Zur charged, got plenty of ads from Labor and Yesh Atid, but Likud was spending most of its advertising budget on the rival Ynet site. Therefore, he continued, Yeshua asked Netanyahu aide Nir Hefetz “for meetings with the person responsible for Likud’s campaign advertising.” Yeshua confirmed that he did have a “sales talk” with Hefetz.
In addition, the lawyer tried to show that Walla’s coverage of Netanyahu wasn’t unusually favorable by showing similar articles that ran in other news outlets. One example was an article on the screening of a film about an operation to rescue the hostages on a hijacked Sabena flight in 1972. Netanyahu, who had participated in the operation as a soldier, was present, as were Former Prime Ministers Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak.
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Ben Zur submitted articles from seven different news outlets on the subject, including some that simply regurgitated press statements.
On a separate issue, Yeshua admitted under cross-examination to having spoken with journalists even after the trial began, but said he didn’t talk to them about his testimony or give them the recordings he gave the police.
Television journalist Amit Segal “wrote that I’m no saint and I wanted to respond,” Yeshua said. “We met for 15 minutes. Many people contacted me, who I told I couldn’t cooperate. I met with Baruch Kra for half an hour, but we didn’t talk about the investigation. I said I can’t provide material, but if there are questions, I can answer. He told me don’t talk, just listen.”