On the 12th day of cross-examination of Walla news website CEO Ilan Yeshua in the criminal corruption case against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister's defense team focused on showing that Netanyahu had been given negative coverage on the website during the 2013 election campaign.
The prime minister is charged with bribery for allegedly giving Walla’s parent company at the time, Bezeq telecommunications, hundreds of millions of shekels in regulatory relief in return for positive news coverage.
Boaz Ben Zur, Netanyahu’s attorney, showed the court news stories hostile to the prime minister that had appeared on Walla after Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, met in December 2012 with Shaul Elovitch, who controlled Bezeq at the time. The Netanyahus also met with Elovitch's wife, Iris. The Elovitches are codefendants in the case.
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The prosecution claims that the meeting marked the beginning of the Elovitches’ interference with Walla's news content at the behest of the Netanyahus.
“During this period, there were scores of negative articles and only one instance of a request that was granted,” said Ben Zur, “and on this, you’ve built a case for bribery. The world has turned upside down. You didn’t check so much as an inch of this case, yet you filed an indictment over the news coverage.”
Michal Rosen-Ozer, who represents Iris Elovitch, added: “The witness [Yeshua] knew to say so nicely during questioning by the prosecutors that there were never any anti-Netanyahu articles and that the entire site was biased. The prosecutors never did anything to confirm this.”
Ben Zur, among other things, presented the court with news stories that criticized Netanyahu's Likud party's spending during the election; offered an optimistic assessment of left-wing parties’ prospects in the election; criticism from the left and the right of Netanyahu’s dealings with the Palestinians; and an examination of the “Bibi-Tours” affair.
The chief judge on the Jerusalem District Court panel presiding over the case, Rivka Friedman-Feldman, commented several times on the large number of examples and warned that if the defense didn’t stop, the cross-examination might be limited in time.
Regarding the criticism that political figures Naftali Bennett and Tzipi Livni had leveled against Netanyahu, Yeshua said that he himself hadn’t received many appeals from the prime minister’s aides about “that kind of news.” He said he had not been involved with the wording of the anti-Netanyahu headlines that Ben Zur showed the court and that, in any case, they were “less biting” than the content of the stories. The headlines were written by editors to attract readers.
Defense attorneys asked the judges to instruct prosecutors to provide them with all of Yeshua’s correspondence with business people, public relations representatives and politicians. They asserted that no one would be able to prove that Netanyahu’s appeals for positive coverage were exceptional without seeing who else had sought the same thing.
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“If the attorney general and the prosecution want to have more positive news coverage, I have no complaint,” Ben Zur said. “My complaint is that when someone wants to do so symmetrically, it turns into a criminal case. ... It didn’t occur to the prime minister of Israel that he was receiving a gift from this website, which doesn’t set the day’s [national] agenda.”
A flood of documents
In response to a question regarding an opinion column critical of Netanyahu on the eve of the 2013 election by Rachel Liel, then the director of the New Israel Fund, Yeshua said that he wasn’t involved in commissioning op-eds for the site. But, he added, “at some stage, there was a discussion about how we needed to add more right-wingers, and we did that.”
“We didn’t employ people based on their political affiliation,” he said. “I didn’t deal [with this] at all until that time [of the Netanyahu-Elovitch meeting]. The first hires I made were Tali Ben Ovadia and Yinon Magal [as chief editors]. When I was told to fire Tali, without a moment’s hesitation, I appointed Yinon. That alone shows how naïve I was in the matter – I put both Tali, who’s considered left, and Yinon, who’s considered right, in jobs.”
Ben Zur quoted the journalist Erel Segal asserting that there were no right-wing columnists on the Walla site. Yeshua denied that and pointed out that Segal himself had been employed there in 2016. He denied refusing to hire Segal while Magal was editor-in-chief in 2013 and 2014.
Yeshua, who is no longer employed at Walla, noted two events that occurred close to the 2013 election that he alleged marked the beginning of Netanyahu’s interference in Walla news coverage – the first, the call to fire Ben Ovadia because she “isn’t cooperating” with requests from the prime minister’s aides; and the second, a “flood of Word documents” from the Netanyahu campaign that sought changes in coverage during the remaining five days of the campaign season.
“At the end of 2012 [following the Netanyahu-Elovitch meeting] it was agreed that Ben Ovadia would have to go,” said Yeshua. “I appealed to her but she wouldn’t cooperate, and the next thing I remember is constant messages coming from Zeev Rubenstein, Shaul [Elovitch], etc. Tali was moved out and Yinon entered the picture. There was correspondence between me and Shaul about Tali. I think there was also a meeting he asked me to attend at his house. He had an argument with her. I was told she wasn’t acceptable to the [Netanyahu] couple.”