Netanyahu Trial: Defense Tries to Blame Walla’s pro-Bibi Slant on Prosecution Witness

Defense attorney quotes Ilan Yeshua’s statements to police that all news sites owned by tycoons, including Walla, play favorites

Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel
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Ilan Yeshua in court yesterday in Jerusalem.
Ilan Yeshua in court yesterday in Jerusalem.Credit: Emil Salman
Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel

The defense attorney for former Bezeq chief Shaul Elovitch, who is on trial for bribery alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, sought to prove that the prosecution’s key witness was behind the slanting of coverage in Netanyahu’s favor.

Attorney Jack Chen, continuing his cross-examination of former Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua in Jerusalem District Court on Wednesday, tried to show that intervention in stories for ulterior motives was not so unusual at Walla.

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Chen read a transcript of Yeshua’s testimony to the police, in which he was asked if this was a common way of operating: “It is certainly not proper practice, since journalism is supposed to be independent. On the other hand, let’s not be naïve. Look at the ownership structure of all the media in Israel and the world. They are held by tycoons who have financial interests, and they surely don’t buy media outlets for the profit. So to say that Shaul was the only owner who ever exerted pressure on his editorial board would not be serious.”

In his testimony on Wednesday, Yeshua also described how the slanting of the coverage worked: “If someone would have come to me and said the stance has to be right-wing, I would have found a way to implement that intelligently. But that’s not what happened. There was no right and no left, the demands had nothing to do with that… It started with, ‘Let’s not be like Haaretz,’ went on to ‘Let’s not upset them’ and from there to an agenda of coddling the prime minister, and then, too, I didn’t know what to do. How am I supposed to know that the prime minister wants me to attack President Rivlin? These are unreasonable demands that no one can meet.”

Yeshua added: “There are media outlets that can do this influencing in a way that’s not so obvious. (At Walla), it was impossible to hide, it was clear to everyone.”

Yeshua was also confronted with his previous testimony before the Israel Securities Authority: “Ultimately, [at Walla] there were really things against (Netanyahu),” he said then. “I tried to create a status quo where they were concerned. She (Sara Netanyahu) went to some event for bereaved families, or to visit firefighters or whatever. What do we care? Everyone writes about the prime minister’s wife. ... Criticize him, but write much more flattering things about her, because that’s more important that writing things against him. … It didn’t help me very much though – items were posted but then we were quickly forced to take them down. The result was that the site was biased, despite my tactics.”

In his testimony, Yeshua referred to the hostile coverage of Naftali Bennett ahead of the 2013 election, saying, “We were prevented from posting a survey showing Bennett gaining two more seats.” He said that at the time, Elovitch relayed requests to him that he received from Ze’ev Rubinstein, a close associate of the Netanyahus, to publish negative items about Bennett and his wife and father. “This was the first instance of such an intensive level of intervention,” Yeshua said.

Chen sought to show that Elovitch did not force the CEO to publish the items, citing messages where Elovitch asks, “Is it possible?” Yeshua replied that in this period the pressure on him was relatively moderate, but then added: “The mere relaying (of these messages) into the night and on Shabbat, … message after message after message, and saying, ‘The big man [Netanyahu] is waiting,’ ... this is where the tragedy of something completely unreasonable started to be built.”

The defense attorney pressed Yeshua about an item that included a photo of Yair Netanyahu kissing his girlfriend. Elovitch wrote to the CEO about that: “Ilan, block it [publication] at all costs. … Tomorrow, he (Netanyahu) is supposed to sign approval of the IPO.”

A major portion of the cross-examination dealt with Yeshua’s responses to reports about biased coverage on Walla. For example, in response to a 2015 article in The Marker, Yeshua wrote to journalist Amir Taig, “Walla operates without an agenda every day, including reports in favor of Erdan and against Bibi.” In court on Wednesday, Yeshua clarified: “I know that what I replied to him was not correct and he knew it too. Sometimes you write denials and hope it will stick.”

Yeshua denied the defense claim that the response was his idea alone. “There is a public relations battle and in that I am in coordination with Shaul, we were totally coordinated on responses.” Yeshua had also contacted Haaretz publisher Amos Schocken and denied any link between Walla’s coverage and Bezeq’s interests.

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