As Netanyahu's Trial Resumes, His Lawyers Will Claim His Media Requests Were Nothing Out of the Ordinary

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Former Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua in Jerusalem District Court on Monday
Former Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua in Jerusalem District Court on Monday for the trial against former Prime Minister Netanyahu. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial resumed on Monday in Jerusalem District Court nearly three months after a break in the proceedings in the so-called Bezeq-Walla case, one of three pending against him.

During the break in the case the prosecution conducted additional investigative work that produced evidence that is arguably at variance with the indictment against the prime minister.

Netanyahu is charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in the case for allegedly securing favorable news coverage from the Walla news website in return for government regulatory concessions to Walla’s parent company at the time, Bezeq telecommunications. Netanyahu was prime minister and communications minister during the period in question and his defense team is expected to argue that favorable coverage that he received was not unique to him, and that Ilan Yeshua, the CEO of the website then and now a key witness at the trial had repeatedly acceded to requests from other politicians for favorable coverage.

The defense will seek to use thousands of text messages and hundreds of private emails that were recently discovered on Yeshua’s digital devices in the course of the prosecution’s recent supplementary investigation. The new investigative materials, which Haaretz has obtained, show that during the election campaigns in 2013 and 2015, Yeshua had ties with politicians and senior officials who were in charge of placing their parties’ campaign advertising on the internet. The material, which the prosecution turned over to Netanyahu’s lawyers, appears to show that in return for the advertising revenue, the sites provided positive coverage to the parties.

That is arguably at variance with what is alleged in the indictment in the case, which police dubbed Case 4000. “If the prosecution’s theory is correct, according to which Netanyahu received positive coverage in return for regulatory approvals under his authority, then this is a situation of bribery,” said Yehoshua Reznik, the former deputy state prosecutor for criminal affairs, but providing positive coverage to a party in an effort to get the party’s campaign to advertise on a site such as Walla is not the same, Reznik added.

One of the key dates in the original indictment is December 27, 2012, when Bezeq’s controlling shareholder at the time, Shaul Elovitch, and his wife, Iris, met with Netanyahu and his wife, Sara.

According to prosecution, it was at that meeting that an arrangement that allegedly involved bribery was developed – favorable coverage in return for regulatory concessions to Bezeq. Yeshua testified in court that from then on, he began to receive instructions from Elovitch regarding Walla’s coverage of Netanyahu and his family, along with other demands and requests. According to the new evidence that was obtained during the three-month break in the trial, the links between Yeshua and officials from Netanyahu’s Likud party began even earlier – involving different people and at least partly related to the Likud’s advertising campaign in the run-up to the Knesset election in January of 2013.

In addition to the election advertising on the Walla news website, stories presenting Likud in a positive light continued to appear on the site. And Elovitch and Yeshua began receiving requests from Zeev Rubinstein, a businessman who was close to the Netanyahu family. By Election Day, January 22, there had been eight such stories, five of which concerned Naftali Bennett – the current prime minister. They were not favorable to Bennett, a former Netanyahu chief of staff who ran in that election as head of the Habayit Hayehudi party.

Rubinstein continued to pass on requests on behalf of Netanyahu after the election as well and they became more frequent as the 2015 election approached. In the meantime, Nir Hefetz, a media adviser to Netanyahu, also began submitting requests for positive coverage.

Embracing Bennett

Yeshua’s financial ties with politicians did not end with Likud, the new materials show. After Netanyahu stopped using Walla to attack Bennett following the 2013 election, Yeshua sought advertising from Habayit Hayehudi on the Walla website. 

On March 9, 2015, a week before that year’s election, Bennett was invited for a sympathetic  interview at Walla’s studios, where he laid out his campaign messages. After the positive coverage, Yeshua wrote to Bennett saying that he would appreciate Bennett’s instructing his campaign manager, Moshe Klughaft, to place Habayit Hayehudi’s campaign advertising with Walla, after previously only advertising on the Ynet news website. 

“I personally promise you compensation above and beyond. For some reason, [Klughaft] has been boycotting Walla at a time when we are the leading site, and it seems to me that we are at least trying to be fair,” Yeshua wrote to Bennett.

Two days later, Walla featured two positive stories about Bennett. A day prior to the election,  Bennett allegedly pressured the website to publish a story alleging that Netanyahu was trying to eliminate Bennett and Yeshua complied.

Over the coming weeks and months at the trial, Netanyahu’s defense lawyers will attempt to draw parallels between Yeshua’s attempts to obtain advertising business in exchange for favorable news coverage and the regulatory benefits worth billions that Elovitch allegedly received in return for skewing Walla’s coverage of Netanyahu.

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