Netanyahu Trial: 'PM's Wife Thanked Tycoon for Helping Husband During 2015 Election'

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Byline Haaretz Cartoon, February 9, 2021.
Byline Haaretz Cartoon, February 9, 2021.Credit: Amos Biderman

The testimony of former Walla news website CEO Ilan Yeshua in the trial against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu entered its fourth day Monday with additional evidence that Yeshua was being pressured to slant the website's coverage in favor of the prime minister.

Walla was a subsidiary at the time of Bezeq telecommunications, and Bezeq was seeking government concessions from Netanyahu, who in addition to being prime minister was communications minister. 

In addition to Netanyahu, the defendants in the case include Bezeq's controlling shareholder, Shaul Elovitch and his wife Iris, amid allegations that the favorable coverage was being given in exchange for government regulatory concessions to Bezeq. As communications minister at the time, Netanyahu's consent was required for permission to merge Bezeq's operations with those of the Yes satellite television service provider.

In Monday's proceedings, prosecutor Judith Tirosh presented correspondence from February 2015, purportedly from Shaul Elovitch to Yeshua, in which Elovitch wrote, "Every day I have problems with 'the big man' on my matter," a term that Yeshua had previously said was a code name for the prime minister.

Tirosh asked Yeshua whether the reference was to problems at the Walla news website, he responded, "No, he meant Bezeq's dealings with the prime minister."

Yeshua later said that on Election Day in 2015, he received a text from Netanyahu's aide Nir Hefetz that included a video of the premier warning that "Arab voters are coming in droves to the polls."

Shortly thereafter, the video went up on Walla's homepage, and Hefetz sent a text to Yeshua that said: "I showed Bibi the main page. He's pleased."

Yeshua also said he sent the Elovitches a screenshot of Walla's homepage, and added: "The video you asked for is in the main headline."

Tirosh also presented a text exchange from a WhatsApp group that included the Elovitches, their son, Or, and Yeshua, which took place a few minutes after exit polls were published on Election Day in 2015. At 10:09 P.M., Or Elovtich wrote "You saved Bibi," to which Yeshua replied: "Don't laugh. What's important now is that he'll know how to appreciate it and say thank you."

"Let's hope so," wrote Shaul Elovitch, with his son adding, "We won't hope. We'll demand."

Tirosh asked Yeshua what he knew about the Netanyahus' opinion of the election coverage on Walla's site. "Shaul Elovitch told me that Sara Netanyahu profusely thanked Iris Elovitch for the great service Walla gave Netanyahu during the election," Yeshua said.

Elovitch allegedly asked Yeshua to remove a story about Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog, this at a time leading up to elections in 2015.

Yeshua testified regarding problems with an interview that Netanyahu gave to the Walla website a week before the 2015 election that the prime minister viewed as containing hostile questions. The posting of the interview was delayed due to pressure, Yeshua said, and was then followed by complaints from Nir Hefetz and Shaul Elovitch stating that Netanyahu was angry about the interview.

"It came from all directions. The demand was not to post put it [on the website] and to do a supplementary interview, to fix what was there. There were two days of intensive pressure for us to change and edit it and they said exactly which segments to delete," Yeshua said.

"I sent Hefetz the interview and he made comments and said what he wanted to be in the interview," Yeshua said, adding that work on the requested changes went on all night and until the following morning. "I went to Nir [Hefetz] with the edited segment and I made him swear that this doesn't get out because it's not proper to send to an interviewee [and allow him] to fix and edit an interview," he told the court.  

Despite the changes, Hefetz, Elovitch and Zeev Rubinstein, an associate of Sara Netanyahu's, still would not approve it being posted on the website, Yeshua said.

Tirosh then asked, "Had you ever allowed a party leader to see an interview with him and edit it? I'm not asking about another prime minster because during the entire period there was only one."

"Never," Yeshua replied.

Tirosh also presented purported correspondence between Elovitch and Yeshua from the day on which Netanyahu approved the Bezeq-Yes merger, in which Yeshua congratulated Elovitch, who responded: "What contribution did you made to the Bezeq-Yes deal?"

According to what was presented in court, Yeshua replied: "Two answers: four years before, I assisted in presenting it to the antitrust commissioner and that we provided slanted coverage."

Tirosh then asked: "You respond to Shaul, 'The great thing is that there's a victory over a lot of evil.' What does that mean?"

"That I was fawning," Yeshua replied.

Last week, Yeshua testified that he was asked by the Elovitches to erase all correspondence between them that indicated that Walla’s coverage had been slanted in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s favor, and to destroy his cellphone.

He said the Elovitches also asked him to coordinate his story with Netanyahu’s advisers. Yeshua recalled a time when he said he was asked to remove a story from the website that was deemed "unflattering" to Netanyahu's wife, Sara, so as not to damage prospects for the upcoming Bezeq-Yes merger.

The current testimony, in a matter dubbed by the police as Case 4000, is one one of three matters in which the prime minister is on trial. In Case 4000 he is charged with receiving bribes from Elovitch, in the form of slanted coverage in return for regulatory concessions worth about 1 billion shekels (about $300 million).

Yeshua told the Jerusalem District Court that, while he always felt morally uncomfortable with the slanted coverage, he only realized it was criminal at the meeting with Elovitches in which he was asked to destroy evidence, including his cellphone. Yeshua said he tricked them by first backing up its contents.

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