The Walla internet news site “belonged completely” to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his circle, former Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua said Tuesday, his fifth day of testimony in Netanyahu’s trial.
“The norm was that we weren’t actually the site’s editors,” Yeshua told the Jerusalem District Court. “When we posted something, they’d ask for improvements. I knew they could always come change things. ... Every day was a battle.”
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He said he was even asked to fire journalists who opposed the slanted coverage, including editor-in-chief Avi Alkalay.
Netanyahu is charged with bribery for allegedly giving regulatory benefits to Bezeq in exchange for favorable coverage by the telecommunications company’s internet news site, Walla. Bezeq’s then-owner, Shaul Elovitch, and his wife Iris are also charged with bribery.
Prosecutor Judith Tirosh submitted transcripts of Yeshua’s correspondence with the Elovitches, and he confirmed that “the big guy” meant Netanyahu, as did “he,” while “the lady” meant Netanyahu’s wife Sara.
In one case, for instance, Elovitch wrote, “The big guy is surprising me on the upside every day on the most important things,” meaning Bezeq. “We have to find a way to repay him. He’s going above and beyond to help, but we can’t help him because of a bunch of nothings.”
Yeshua wrote back, “We’re providing the goods, we’re okay. It’s costing in blood, but we can improve. It will be necessary to build a completely different editorial staff.”
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“I don’t like being in debt,” Elovitch responded. “He’s really being good and changing all the old legacy” – a reference to Bezeq’s treatment by former Communications Minister Gilad Erdan and his ministry director general, Avi Berger, whom Elovitch accused of “issuing a regulation a day against Bezeq.” After the 2015 election, Netanyahu became communications minister in addition to premier, replaced Berger and he “made the Communications Ministry change all the decisions,” Elovitch wrote.
In a recording submitted as evidence, Elovitch said of Netanyahu, “I never would have believed he could do things like this. He’s going against everyone, on everything.” On another occasion, he wrote Yeshua regarding the Netanyahus, “It’s important to keep them happy, especially at this time.”
Throughout this period, Elovitch voiced dissatisfaction over what he viewed as the minimal recompense Walla was giving Netanyahu.
“I’m not providing anything,” he said in the recording. “We provided during the election, but today, nothing. Others are writing more than we are.”
In a text from September 2015, Elovitch complained, “I come out looking either unreliable or stupid that I’m paying salaries to people to beat up on him.” When he expressed dissatisfaction with Alkalay, Yeshua insisted the editor was “fully” briefed on Netanyahu’s battle with then-Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked over credit for a law toughening penalties for stone-throwers.
For months after the 2015 election, “We dealt with this every day,” Yeshua told the court. “I knew I could see an article that wasn’t good for the prime minister, and either I’d take it down myself or I’d get a request later.”
Only after Gidi Weitz reported in Haaretz in October 2015 about Netanyahu’s intervention in Walla “was there a lull,” Yeshua added.
The correspondence also highlighted the Netanyahus’ personal involvement in the coverage. In one text, Elovitch wrote, “Give the lady everything possible and he’ll kill himself for me,” referring respectively to Sara and Benjamin Netanyahu.
“They deserve it,” he added. “I know what she’s writing me and my wife. These demands are completely normal.”
Yeshua said Elovitch told him that the Netanyahus’ son Yair “gets up every morning and monitors everything and incites Sara. They’d have some complaint. She’d send screenshots that Yair made.”
Once, Yeshua recalled, “Shaul gave me two thick folders of analysis” of op-eds “showing that we aren’t sufficiently positive about the prime minister,” the implied message being “that we should do better.”