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News Site Told Not to Run Netanyahu Opponent's Comments About PM's Media Ties, Key Witness Says

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Former CEO of the Walla news site Ilan Yeshua, today.
Former CEO of the Walla news site Ilan Yeshua, today.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Israel's Walla news website was told to post a response by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to a report alluding to a possibly illegal quid-pro-quo relationship between the premier and an Israeli telecom giant  without providing details regarding the report itself, a tape played at Netanyahyu's corruption trial on Tuesday revealed.

The tape was played during the testimony of Ilan Yeshua, a key prosecution witness at Netanyahu's trial who on Tuesday took the stand in his seventh and final day of direct questioning from the prosecution. The recording, which was made by Yeshua, the former CEO of the Walla site, captured a conversation from 2016 between Yeshua and Iris Elovitch, the wife of Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder at the time of Bezeq telecom, which owned Walla.

"If we don't have a choice, we'll have to put up the response [to the report] as it is," Iris Elovitch is heard telling Yeshua, while adding that the details of the report itself would not be included. She also told Yeshua not to include comments from Isaac Herzog, the Knesset opposition leader at the time, regarding the report.

She also spoke about the alleged influence of Netanyahu's older son at the Prime Minister's Residence over his parents' perception of the media. "Yair Netanyahu is a student. He's poisoning his parents all day," she is heard saying on the tape.

In 2016 correspondence that prosecutor Judith Tirosh presented in court Tuesday, Iris Elovitch purportedly wrote that Yair Netanyahu "looks for any reason to complain" about news coverage of his father and family, adding that it is important that Nir Hefetz, and Ran Baratz, Netanyahu's former media advisers, "let their bosses know that there is full cooperation."

Mrs. Elovitch added that "we are trying to do our best for the father, mother and son." In court, Yeshua explained that this was a reference to Netanyahu's family.

Another piece of correspondence between Yeshua and Elovitch, that was presented in court Tuesday related to a 2016 Walla story. The story's headline urged Israel's Attorney General to investigate Netanyahu's conflict of interest in Israel's purchase of German submarines.

"Is that the headline, have we gone crazy?" Shaul Elovitch wrote to Yeshua. Elvotch said that even though he directed Walla's chief editor to cover the premier in a positive manner, the submarine story harmed Netanyahu.

Prosecutor Judith Tirosh wrapped up her direct questioning of Yeshua after seven days of testimony. The cross-examination of Yeshua will begin in two weeks, to give the defense attorneys time to prepare, the three-judge panel decided. The trial will resume on May 3, but the cross-examination itself will begin the following day.

Lawyers for Shaul Elovitch will be the first to question Yeshua, followed by attorneys for Iris Elovitch. Netanyahu's lawyers will be the last to conduct cross-examination of the Walla website's former CEO. The judges did not state how much time they have allocated for Yeshua's cross-examination but defense counsel have requested a total of 20 days.

'Hysterical' about Bennett  

On Monday, Yeshua spoke about how Netanyahu and his wife Sara were "hysterical" about pushing for unfavorable news coverage of the wife of the prime minister's right-wing rival Natfali Bennett. 

According to the indictments in the case, also known as Case 4000, Netanyahu received bribes from Elovitch in the form of slanting the coverage on the site on behalf of Netanyahu and his family – and in return he granted regulatory benefits to Elovitch's Bezeq that were worth about 1 billion shekels.

Testifying before the Jerusalem District Court, Yeshua mentioned conversations with Elovitch implying an alleged link between the coverage on his site and the benefits its owner was hoping to get.

In Monday's hearing, Yeshua spoke of requests made by Netanyahu's close associate Zeev Rubinstein ahead of the 2013 election to publish reports on Walla that would harm Bennett, then leader of the religious Habayit Hayehudi party.

The charges against Netanyahu claim he was personally involved in making these requests.

A text message Elovitch sent Yeshua at time, and presented in court, read: "The material I gave you is very important, especially what you'll find that Bennett's wife worked as a chef at a non-kosher restaurant, and she's a religious woman."

Another text message, sent by Rubinstein to Elovitch, who then forwarded it to Yeshua, said Netanyahu "is sitting and watching Walla. It's hysterically important to him and her [Netanyahu and his wife], the restaurant."

Yeshua was also questioned about Walla's purchase of popular second-hand trading website Yad2. "I am still asking for a sign-off from the big guy," Elovitch wrote, referring to Netanyahu.

Yeshua replied, “the big guy better deliver the goods, after all we’ve done for him.”

Yeshua testified that Walla continued to provide skewed coverage of Netanyahu as Walla waited for the final approval of the Yad2 sale. 

'The big guy owes you one'

Also in his testimony, Yeshua said that after publishing a story that condemned former Israeli President Shimon Peres, Elovitch told him that "the big guy owes you one." When asked to clarify, Yeshua stated "the big guy" was Netanyahu.

Yeshua also said that Elovitch instructed him to take down an unfavorable picture of the prime minister's son, Yair Netanyahu, from Walla, where he was pictured kissing his partner. Yeshua testified that Elovitch said that he'd be expecting a call from Prime Minister Netanyahu after that picture was released. "Prevent that picture from going up at all costs," Elovitch said to Yeshua, according to the latter's testimony.

Yeshua also said that in late 2013, discussions about Walla's ownership also arose, with billionaires Sheldon Adelson, Larry Allison and Australian casino tycoon James Packer on the potential buyers list.

"Elovitch told me that Packer approached him about buying Walla on the request of the Prime Minister," Yeshua testified. "The conversation was that the Prime Minister was interested in Packer potentially buying the site." 

In text messages between Elovitch and Yeshua shown to the court, they discussed a planned visit by Packer, during which, according to Elovitch, the Australian tycoon "will probably get a massage in Jerusalem." Yeshua told the court: "I understood 'a massage in Jerusalem' to mean a metaphor for pressure by the prime minister."

"I feel like I'm in a movie," Yeshua wrote to Elovitch at the time, to which Elovitch replied: "Sadly, it's reality."

Asked why he wrote that message, Yeshua said Packer "didn't want to buy the site, we didn't want to sell, somebody else wants the site sold. It's insane."

Netanyahu's defense team protested Yeshua's testimony, arguing it includes details that they "never heard of before."

More ex-workers to testify

Several more former staff members are lined up to testify later on in the trial.

The prosecution has notified the court that they will need all three days to finish Yeshua's investigation, since he is the central witness to the Bezeq-Walla case.

On Tuesday, Yeshua said that Walla “belonged completely” to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his circle, on 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.”

He said he was even asked to fire journalists who opposed the slanted coverage, including editor-in-chief Avi Alkalay.

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