Netanyahu Trial: News Site ex-CEO Didn't View Biased Coverage as Criminal – at First

Ilan Yeshua testified that 'I wouldn’t have gone near anything criminal. I wouldn’t have done it for fear of punishment, period'

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Ilan Yeshua in court in Jerusalem last week.
Ilan Yeshua in court in Jerusalem last week.Credit: Emil Salman

Former Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua testified Monday in Jerusalem District Court that at first, that he did not believe that skewing coverage to favor Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was criminal in nature.

During his cross-examination in the Bezeq-Walla bribery trial, Yeshua said he changed his mind after a meeting in 2016 when he was asked by Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in Bezeq, which owned Walla, to destroy evidence of the tendentious reporting. He referred to that encounter as the “obstruction meeting.”

“Unequivocally, until the obstruction meeting, when they told me it was criminal, I didn’t think it was criminal,” Yeshua said. “I wouldn’t have gone near anything criminal. I wouldn’t have done it for fear of punishment, period.”

When asked by Elovitch’s attorney, Jacques Chen, Yeshua confirmed that Walla’s lawyer, with whom he had consulted about slanting coverage, did not tell him it was illegal.

Yeshua contacted attorney Reli Leshem in 2015 after an investigative report in Haaretz revealed the slanted coverage. He confirmed that what the Haaretz report said was true and showed him correspondence on the matter.

Yeshua testified that after that meeting he sought to reduce the degree of intervention in Walla’s content.

“You didn’t think that you had been involved in illegal acts, because otherwise there would be no ‘degree’ to talk about,” Chen said, and Yeshua agreed, “Absolutely.”

Chen hinted that Yeshua had also slanted coverage to advance his own interests, to obtain approval of the sale of the Yad2 website, one of the benefits Elovitch received from Netanyahu, according to the indictments against them. Yeshua himself profited from that deal.

With regard to publishing a story about a meeting between Netanyahu and his wife with military orphans before that deal was approved, Chen asked Yeshua if he had seen that as a “corrupt condition” in the Yad2 matter. “Demands like that were our bread and butter, and during that period specifically [the pressure] was very intense,” Yeshua said. “I would have done it [skewing the coverage] without any connection. Did it occur to me that I also didn’t want to upset him [Netanyahu]? It’s possible.”

Chen pressed Yeshua about a message he had sent to Elovitch at that time: “All the big man [Netanyahu] needs is not to deliver the goods after all we’ve done for him.” Yeshua was asked if he was referring to a corrupt connection with the prime minister, and he said, “Not at all. It’s a totally legitimate deal. … The initiative for the biased coverage wasn’t just during that window of two-three weeks when we needed the exemption, but over a year and a half.” He added that there was no connection between his acquiescence to the requests to skew coverage and the 15-million-shekel ($4.29 million) bonus that he received when the deal went through.

Chen noted that Yeshua testified that Axel Springer Digital Classifieds, the company that acquired Yad2, wasn’t connected to Netanyahu in any way, and it was actually then-Labor Party chairman Isaac Herzog who had met with its executives and “said good things about Walla.” In this context Yeshua was asked if Herzog had asked him to intervene in coverage of him on the website. He answered, “I cannot deny that he might have approached me once or twice. … At the time we were very against him, and it’s possible that he asked for a correction.”

The defense attorney sought to undermine some of the prosecution’s assumptions. Thus, he quoted a conversation between Elovitch and Yeshua on removing a report on “the big man,” in the context of Arnon Mozes and not Netanyahu. He also argued that Elovitch had more than once given Yeshua incorrect information, like telling him that he had hosted the Netanyahus in his home, and that the prime minister’s doctor and friend, Zvi Berkowitz, had told him, “He [Netanyahu] was prepared to commit suicide for me [Elovitch].” According to Chen, Elovitch had never hosted the prime minister and Berkowitz declared that he had never spoken to him.

Monday’s hearing was cut short, at the request of the defense and the prosecution, because of the scheduled disruptions to public transportation due to the Jerusalem Day flags march in the city. Chen will resume his cross-examination on Tuesday.

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