Benjamin Netanyahu’s lawyers have made their latest bid to show that the prime minister is not guilty of giving favors for positive media coverage, saying that stories his people asked the Walla website to run also appeared on competitors’ sites.
In the case, which the police have dubbed Case 4000, Netanyahu is accused of bribery, fraud and breach of trust for allegedly giving Walla’s parent firm, the Bezeq telecommunications company, regulatory favors worth hundreds of millions of shekels in return for positive coverage on Walla.
On Wednesday, Netanyahu lawyer Boaz Ben Zur continued his strategy from the previous day, arguing that a number of stories that appeared on Walla during the 2013 election campaign could be interpreted as anti-Netanyahu.
Ben Zur is now in his third month in the cross-examination of Ilan Yeshua, the Walla CEO from November 2006 to June 2019 and the main witness in the Bezeq-Walla case.
On Wednesday, Ben Zur mentioned a Walla headline that read “At the last minute, Likud is also using Yigal Amir against Bennett.” Yigal Amir assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, while Naftali Bennett, who is striving to replace Netanyahu as prime minister in the next few days, has been Netanyahu’s main rival on the right for nearly a decade.
“On Election Day there were requests to publish photos of Netanyahu’s visit to the Western Wall and of him voting, and to remove a picture of Bennett,” Ben Zur said, adding that “the picture of Netanyahu didn't appear for all of Election Day, only after the polling stations closed and the television exit polls came in.”
Ben Zur added that a request to publish an article stating that Bennett’s father once took part in a demonstration against Rabin was not accepted by Walla. Yeshua replied: “They immediately told us that they were retreating from this.”
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Ben Zur also presented negative articles about Bennett by a number of media outlets during the election campaign to show that the stories on Walla were not an exception.
He said that Walla never ran an article about Bennett’s wife working in a nonkosher restaurant that Yeshua was asked to publish. Yeshua said that businessman Zeev Rubinstein, who was close to the Netanyahus, “wrote that the matter of [Bennett’s] wife was insanely important to him and her [the Netanyahus],” but Walla’s editors kept it off the site.
Ben Zur also quoted former Netanyahu media adviser Nir Hefetz, who turned state’s evidence in the case: “Over the years, in normal times, Walla’s importance was tiny. Period. The site hardly influenced the public agenda. Haaretz at 60,000 copies has dozens of times the influence of Walla at 100,000.”
Yeshua answered: “I have nothing to say about what he said. In surveys we did, we, in my opinion, were second in the public’s awareness to [website] Ynet. It could be that Haaretz has a fifth of the visits of Walla, and if you ask people they’ll say that Haaretz is more influential.”
Ben Zur continued: “When you type into Google ‘first reported on Walla,’ you get [actress] Dana Frieder.” He continued quoting Hefetz: “Bibi and I understand very well that the Walla site has zero importance. In March 2015, we couldn’t have cared less what happened on Walla” – that month another general election took place.
Yeshua replied that Walla had the most traffic, adding: “You can say it’s less important, but to say it’s not interesting at all? To say that Walla isn’t important to a prime minister who’s totally aware of the importance of digital – I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous.”
Ben Zur also presented a column by journalist Eli Zippori concluding that most opinion pieces on Walla in 2015 and 2016 were anti-Netanyahu. Ben Zur also quoted journalist Amit Segal, who said Walla was hostile to Netanyahu.
Yeshua said in response: “Zippori has been known in recent years as a [partisan] journalist, a trumpet. I can’t comment seriously about what he writes.
“Amit Segal is certainly a serious journalist; it could be that this was his subjective impression. I don’t know what to do with such statements by a journalist who’s completely [partisan] and another who’s considered at the very least a fan of the prime minister. I don’t know how they measured it. It’s anecdotal and it’s biased.”
Yeshua added that on the eve of the 2013 election, Shaul Elovitch, the Bezeq controlling shareholder at the time, began to intervene “intensively.” Elovitch has also been indicted in the case.
“Between [January] 17 and 21 there was a series of calls and WhatsApp and SMS messages between Shaul and me and between Zeev [Rubinstein] and me, and for the first time Shaul told me ‘you’ll get material from Zeev,’” Yeshua said.
He later added: “I remember that we refused to report a negative story because we had already posted three stories that day. When we decided not to post [the article on] Bennett’s wife, they asked us to post the story on Bennett’s father, and then they changed their minds and asked us to leave the story for the entire weekend.”