The former CEO of Bezeq’s Walla news website was asked by Bezeq’s owners to erase all correspondence between them indicating that Walla’s coverage had been tilted in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s favor, Ilan Yeshua said in his second day of testimony at Netanyahu’s trial.
Yeshua, the former Walla CEO, said the owners also asked him to coordinate his story with Netanyahu’s advisers.
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Yeshua told the Jerusalem District Court that while he always felt morally uncomfortable with the slanted coverage, he realized it was criminal only after that meeting with Bezeq owner Shaul Elovitch and his wife, Iris.
The Elovitches also urged him to destroy his cellphone, he said, but he tricked them by first backing up its contents.
Walla is owned by Bezeq, and Netanyahu allegedly gave Bezeq regulatory relief in exchange for Walla’s favorable coverage. Consequently, he and the Elovitches have all been charged with bribery.
“Iris asked me to come to her house late at night,” Yeshua said. “When I arrived, Shaul and she asked me to leave my phone outside and left theirs outside too. They were very tense.”
They told him they had just heard that a criminal investigation against Netanyahu had been opened. They didn’t know what the subject of the investigation was, but they saw only two possibilities – and one of those was their conduct at Walla.
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“I understood that they and the prime minister’s people were worried,” Yeshua said. “They asked me to coordinate stories with Shaul and the prime minister, no less, regarding how to respond to such an investigation.
“They said that if [the police] asked about the reason for the website’s coverage, I should say there was none, and so would Shaul and the prime minister. And then the investigators would have nothing.”
Various options for what to tell the police were discussed, he said, including admitting that the coverage was slanted but attributing it to either friendship with Netanyahu or ideological opposition to his leftist rivals. Ultimately, however, Elovitch decided to deny that Netanyahu ever requested favorable coverage.
“They asked whether I was erasing our correspondence and asked me to do that in their presence,” Yeshua continued. “They said it was important that I do this. I said I didn’t want to, that there were personal photographs there, and if I did it hastily, I’d erase the pictures of my late mother. ... They tried to pressure me for a few minutes and said I had to destroy the phone, but I was adamant.”
The three also discussed erasing the shared WhatsApp group on which they discussed tilting the coverage.
“In the days following that meeting, Shaul summoned me to several meetings and demanded that I disappear my phone,” Yeshua said. “I changed the name of the group to ‘pictures of grandchildren’ so that if he took the device, he’d have trouble finding it.”
The day after the initial meeting, Yeshua called some lawyers he knew. With their help, he wrote up a record of the meeting and put it in their safe.
The day after that, he ordered Walla’s editors to stop tilting the coverage of Netanyahu. “I told them the slanted coverage ends as of this moment,” he said. “I said it didn’t matter why or how, but it’s all over. Even if I ask you, don’t do it anymore.”
Asked by prosecutor Judith Tirosh why he did this, Yeshua replied, “I always felt very uncomfortable with this, but I didn’t think it was criminal. But when I was asked in the dead of night to coordinate stories and destroy my phone, I said I’m not part of this story. That was crossing a line. At that moment, I decided I wouldn’t continue.”
He denied that since then, Walla has taken an anti-Netanyahu line.
Nir Hefetz, then a Netanyahu adviser who was closely involved in coordinating the slanted coverage, also began trying to contact him at that time, Yeshua said.
“They asked me to meet with Nir. I said I didn’t want to, and that I’d bought a new phone and erased the old one, even though it wasn’t true. I met with Shaul and got new instructions about what I should say with regard to coordinating our stories.”
A few days later, the investigation that Elovitch had so feared turned out to be focused on Netanyahu’s ties with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes. “Elovitch almost cried with joy,” Yeshua recalled.
“By then, we’d already switched to a normal situation in which there’s also criticism [of Netanyahu],” he continued. “He told me to continue what we’d started that week of being an independent news site.”
But a few days after that, he was summoned to Elovitch’s office and his new phone was taken for inspection, Yeshua said. “They wanted to check that it wasn’t bugged. I was completely confused. After 10 minutes, I came to my senses, took the phone, disconnected it and left.”
The next day, Bezeq’s chief security officer, Yehuda Porat, called and asked why he had interrupted the test for wiretaps. “I told him, ‘Leave me alone, I don’t want them to check my phone.’”
Iris Elovitch was afraid that he would turn state’s evidence, Yeshua said, and “they raised this fear with me at several meetings.” Even though he told them he had erased his cellphone, “it was clear they had doubts about whether I had,” he added.
At one point, when the prosecutor asked whether he remembered something, he replied, “I’m not a tape recorder.” Iris Elovitch’s lawyer, Michal Rosen-Ozer, promptly retorted, “Actually, you are.”
Defense demands halt of testimony
Lawyers for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and for Shaul and Iris Elovitch asked the court Tuesday to halt the testimony of former Walla news site CEO Ilan Yeshua, on the ground that the prosecution had acted illegally when preparing him to testify.
The Jerusalem District Court rejected the requests; the attorneys said they would appeal the decision.
This is likely to delay the continuation of the trial. The prosecution announced that they were in any case expected to last longer than the six sessions allocated for them.
The defense attorneys – Boaz Ben Zur for Netanyahu, Jacques Chen for Shaul Elovitch and Michal Rosen-Ozer for Iris Elovitch – argued that the prosecution had discussed new details with Yeshua that did not come up in his police questioning and which were not presented to the defense. They asked the court to order that Yeshua be officially questioned again by police.
Prosecutor Judith Tirosh objected to the request for a delay in Yeshua’s testimony, saying the defense attorneys “want to do everything so that this witness will not be heard.” She said one cannot appeal interim decisions in a criminal case. Chen responded, “That’s baseless, these are people’s lives. The prosecution’s remarks are making headlines outside and that’s where they’re directed. They are engineering [public] awareness.”
Ben Zur said that the “refresher” the prosecution did with Yeshua before he testified was akin to a briefing, which is forbidden. “I’m not suspecting the innocent, but there’s a big gap between the testimony to police and the testimony [in court]. The defense is being discriminated against substantively,” Ben Zur said. Tirosh denied his claim, saying it was chutzpah, “It’s inconceivable that he’s saying that we are instructing a witness [what to say],” she said.
Judge Moshe Bar-Am said, “The memo from the ‘refresher’ looks like a clarification of facts that were not in Yeshua’s statements to police. If there are facts that aren’t in the [police testimony], don’t you think that’s a problem? If there’s a gap, won’t it undermine the ability to conduct the defense?” Chen said that the presentation of the new things Yeshua said without updating the defense is like, “Binding our hands and legs, and putting a bandana over our eyes.”
Tirosh said the facts aren’t new, and that if there were supplements that weren’t given to the police, they had been delivered to the defense. “When there’s five years of WhatsApp correspondence, one cannot cover everything, even in an investigation,” she said. “We and the defense are in parallel universes. Precedent recognizes the value of the interviewing and refreshing of a witness, especially in mega-cases.”
In addition to the argument of what was done during Yeshua’s preparation, the defense attorney said that evidence obtained from Yeshua’s computer should be disqualified because the search warrant used to obtain the evidence was intended for use for a different investigation, not Case 4000. The judges asked the lawyers if they were not misrepresenting the situation, given that Yeshua consented to have evidence taken from his computer, and therefore there was no breach of privacy under the law. Ben Zur said Yeshua’s consent was irrelevant.
At the opening of the hearing the prosecution said that Yeshua had complained on Monday, after the first day of his testimony, that he had gotten threatening messages. Friedman-Feldman told prosecutor Liat Ben Ari that the prosecution had to update the defense about such things, not just the police. Ben Ari said, “We don’t want to create drama or give the impression that we’re establishing contact with a witness.” To which Friedman-Feldman replied, “It could have an influence on his testimony.”