“Don’t give me away,” Shaul Elovitch urged Ilan Yeshua as he bombarded him with yet another order from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s family to skew coverage at the Walla internet news site. Elovitch, owner of the Bezeq telecommunications company, didn’t want any of the journalists working for his company's popular news site to know he was the driving force behind these favors for Netanyahu, who, in his role as communications minister, was also Bezeq’s chief regulator.
“I won’t involve you at any point,” promised Yeshua, Walla’s CEO.
Nir Hefetz, Netanyahu’s media adviser at the time, also didn’t want his involvement to be known. He was the person who conveyed the Netanyahu family’s orders to Elovitch and Yeshua. Consequently, Hefetz repeatedly urged Yeshua to “erase our correspondence.” And Yeshua repeatedly assured him that “It’s gone” – although, in fact, he saved it all.
Elovitch even noted that whenever he met with Hefetz, the latter would leave his cellphone “in the kitchen or with the secretary” to be sure nothing was recorded.
All this shows that the stars of what later became known as Case 4000, in which Netanyahu was charged with bribery last week, acted from the get-go as if they had something to hide.
This behavior reached its peak in late 2016. On December 26 of that year, Haaretz reported that two undercover police investigations against Netanyahu were in progress. The next night, Hefetz showed up at the Elovitch home in Tel Aviv. After he left, Elovitch and his wife, Iris, summoned Yeshua.
The next morning, December 28, Yeshua went to attorney Israel Leshem’s office and described what had happened the previous night. Leshem’s one-page handwritten account of this conversation went into his office safe, and later became evidence of the defendants’ blatant efforts to obstruct the investigations.
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According to this document, a copy of which was obtained by Haaretz, Iris Elovitch asked Yeshua to come over, and he arrived at the Elovitch house at 10:54 P.M. They told him that Hefetz had just been there and had reported that Netanyahu’s lawyers thought the police probes in question were most likely related to Bibi's relations with Elovitch and/or the premier's ties to Australian businessman James Packer.
In fact, this assessment was wrong: The investigations were actually focused on Netanyahu’s relations with businessman Arnon Milchan and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes. But the Elovitches acted on the assessment Hefetz had relayed.
“They sought to coordinate their stories before the investigation opened – should that happen the following week – so that there would be no contradiction between what Ilan [Yeshua] and the prime minister said,” the document stated. “They asked Ilan to turn on his phone and erase the WhatsApp group. Ilan refused.”
The WhatsApp group in question consisted of Elovitch, his wife and Yeshua. Through it, hundreds of requests to make Walla’s coverage more favorable to the Netanyahu family were conveyed.
“They asked that he [Yeshua] replace his phone immediately. That he say it fell in the toilet and was destroyed. They said they planned to do the same thing themselves,” according to the document.
“At the beginning of the meeting, they asked him to leave his phone outside, together with theirs. Ilan turned off his phone and left it outside,” it added.
The Elovitches also asked Yeshua “to say it was all his own initiative” – in other words, that the slanted coverage was his own idea. “Ilan said that wasn’t possible, that everyone knows everything and it’s impossible that it didn’t come from you,” the document said.
The Elovitches then told him their approach would be “that the website is centrist, not left-wing. Shaul said his line would be that Bibi is a friend and he didn’t want to conduct campaigns against him for no reason. The meeting ended with Iris removing herself from the WhatsApp group and Ilan removing Shaul, to enable the group to be erased.”
But Yeshua actually deceived them, the document continued: “He did this so that they would think he had erased the group and take the pressure off him.”
Yeshua also promised to destroy his phone after he got home, saying he first wanted to download some family photos to his computer. Instead, he went to Leshem’s office the next day and recounted the events described in the document.
Later that same day, Hefetz contacted him via WhatsApp and suggested they go out for coffee. Yeshua didn’t respond.
Fourteen months later, Elovitch and Hefetz were arrested. After Hefetz turned state’s evidence, police investigators staged a face-to-face confrontation between him and Elovitch. One of the subjects covered was that late-night meeting on December 27, 2016.
“I went to Shaul’s house and asked to speak with him privately,” Hefetz recounted during the confrontation. “I told him that the assessment, with very high probability, was that the investigation was about his ties with the prime minister, and with less probability, about Packer ... He [Shaul] said we could rely on Iris 100 percent and he wanted her to be in on the meeting.”
“You’re lying,” Elovitch retorted.
But Hefetz kept going. He said Elovitch thought that if the messages they exchanged still existed, the police would find them, and therefore, “the only way for them not to see the correspondence was to get rid of the cellphone ... He asked me to make contact with Ilan Yeshua the following day.”
Elovitch described the scene differently. Hefetz, he said, told him, “I’m here in secret, and heaven help us if anyone knows I’m here ... I suggest that you erase the messages or replace your cellphones.”
False story, unerased messages
At this point, the police investigator sought to clarify whose idea it actually was to replace the phones. “It was Nir’s,” Elovitch replied. But when the investigator asked Hefetz the same thing, he said, “Absolutely not.”
According to the bill of indictment against Elovitch, sometime after that meeting in December 2016, he and Iris did replace their cellphones. They got rid of the old ones so as to keep their correspondence with others involved in the case from being discovered – “in line with what was agreed upon between the Elovitches and Hefetz at their meeting,” the indictment document added.
“A few days after the meeting between the Elovitches and Yeshua,” it continued, “defendant Elovitch contacted Yeshua again and tried to persuade him to tell a false story if he were called in for questioning. On another occasion, defendant Elovitch once again told Yeshua that he should take responsibility for intervening in what was published on the website and say it was his own initiative. On this occasion, Elovitch told Yeshua that all the people involved, including him and defendant Netanyahu, would deny their involvement in the suspected acts when questioned.
“On this same occasion, defendant Elovitch asked Yeshua why he hadn’t yet met with Hefetz, who was interested in coordinating their stories in advance of a future investigation, and he even pressured Yeshua to meet with Hefetz. On this occasion, Elovitch also sought to make certain that Yeshua had erased the correspondence and replaced his cellphone, as had been requested of him during their previous meetings.
“In January 2017, defendant Elovitch had several additional meetings with Yeshua in which he pressured him, with the goal of obstructing any future investigation.”
Even after information concerning the investigation was publicized, the indictment said, “Elovitch continued pressuring Yeshua and tried to obstruct the investigation. At a meeting between them after the investigation began, defendant Elovitch asked Yeshua if he had been questioned in the case, and whether he had erased their messages and replaced his cellphone. Defendant Elovitch also told Yeshua once again that if he were to be questioned, he should say all the changes in the articles posted on Walla were his own initiative, or stemmed from ideological considerations.”
At another meeting, shortly before news of the investigation was made public, according to the indictment, “defendant Elovitch once again tried to persuade Yeshua to tell a false story – that defendant Elovitch never asked anything of him with regard to articles relating to defendant Netanyahu – and also sought to ensure that Yeshua had ‘disappeared’ his cellphone."
Moreover, the document continued, at a meeting with Iris Elovitch, Hefetz told her about a meeting he had with Netanyahu’s wife and son, Sara and Yair. They were very frightened, Hefetz said, and asked him to go to Iris “and ask her to erase all the correspondence between them and to ensure that the correspondence was in fact erased.”
All of the defendants in fact replaced their cellphones, but Yeshua saved the information that had been on his. And in late 2017, when he was questioned as a witness during an Israel Securities Authority investigation of Elovitch, he handed his phone over.
The Elovitches’ attorneys, Jacques Chen and Michal Rosen-Ozer, said in a statement that they regretted the attorney general’s decision last week to charge the couple, since, “based on the evidence in the case, we’re convinced he should have refrained from indicting our clients.”
Now that the case has moved to the courts, the lawyers' statement added, “We hope this brutal campaign of smears and leaks that has gone on for three years will stop, and the legal process will return and take its proper place, in which the truth will be clarified.
"We are convinced the honorable court will also reach the conclusion that the evidence shows that Shaul and Iris Elovitch did not commit the crimes and deeds attributed to them.”