Netanyahu Trial: News Site CEO Warned to Drop Story on PM's Wife Lest It Thwart Merger

Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua says he was ordered to remove negative coverage of the prime minister for fear that it would harm merger plans between Walla's parent company, Bezeq, and the satellite TV firm Yes

Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel
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Netanyahu in court, today.
Netanyahu in court, today.Credit: Oren Ben Hakoon
Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel

On the third day of testimony in the criminal corruption case against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem District Court, the prosecution attempted to establish a link between favorable coverage of the prime minister on the Walla news website and government regulatory concessions to Walla’s parent company, the Bezeq telecommunications firm.

Ilan Yeshua, the CEO of Walla at the time in question, took the stand again as prosecutors presented a message purportedly from Shaul Elovitch, Bezeq’s controlling shareholder at the time, demanding that Yeshua remove an item from the website that was unflattering of Netanyahu’s wife, Sara.

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“Take that down immediately. I’ll kill you. It will prevent approval of Yes,” the message read, a reference to the approval that Bezeq required from Netanyahu for a merger with the Yes cable television provider. In addition to being prime minister, Netanyahu was communications minister at the time.

“I knew that he [Netanyahu] needed to make a decision permitting Bezeq to buy the shares of Yes. It was discussed several times,” Yeshua testified. “I didn’t know that it was this timing, but here I was told that it was approaching so [I] needed to remove the item. I understood that [Elovitch] was under a lot of pressure.”

The item was a report on accusations against Sara Netanyahu by an employee of the Prime Minister’s Residence. It was removed from Walla’s home page and then deleted from the website entirely.

Evidence was also presented on Wednesday of a message from Elovitch, who along with his wife, Iris, is also a defendant in the case, in which Shaul Elovitch purportedly wrote: “The big man is looking for me. He probably wants an opposite article.”

When Yeshua was asked who “the big man” referred to, Yeshua said it was the prime minister, who was seeking flattering coverage of Sara Netanyahu, after which, according to the testimony, Elovitch said: “Now be very careful. Any article would do huge damage to both us and him.” Asked why it would cause damage, Yeshua replied, “Because it’s a connection that they don’t want revealed.”

The Walla case, which was dubbed by investigators as Case 4000, is one of three cases on which Prime Minister Netanyahu is being tried on allegations of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. He denies wrongdoing in any of the cases and challenges the proposition that seeking favorable news coverage could constitute a crime.

In one of the other two cases against the prime minister, Case 2000, he is accused of illegally engaging in discussions with the publisher of the Yedioth Aharonoth daily, Arnon Mozes, about obtaining favorable coverage from the newspaper in exchange for legislation favorable to the paper. Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing and said he never intended to consummate any such agreement.

In evidence of the level of control that the prime minister allegedly exerted on the Walla website, Yeshua said on Wednesday that Netanyahu scuttled the appointment of journalist Eran Tiefenbrunn as editor at Walla. After Tiefenbrunn was interviewed for the job, Yeshua said he informed Shaul and Iris Elovitch. “Iris told me that Shaul had checked with the prime minister and the answer was negative.”

Yeshua also testified about an interview in 2015 that the prime minister had given to Walla. “All that day and the day after, there was a crazy saga of pressure not to post the interview, to edit [it] and do a supplementary interview,” Yeshua recounted. “We reached a situation in which they really edited the interview.”

Ran Baratz, a member of the staff of the Prime Minister’s Office at the time, was tapped to influence the editorial content of the website, Yeshua said. “At a meeting with Elovitch, I was told that I needed to get to know Ran to make Walla more right-wing and that he was an important person around the prime minister.” A procedure was established in which every senior appointment had to be cleared not only with the Elovitches but with “the prime minister’s people,” Yeshua said.

Earlier in the week Yeshua testified that at times dealing with the Netanyahus’ requests occupied “30 to 40 percent and even 50 percent of my time. Seventy percent of my interactions as CEO with Shaul Elovitch were about coverage of Netanyahu.”

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