Netanyahu Trial: PM Asked to Remove Stories About Bereaved Families, Key Witness Says

Defense attorneys question Ilan Yeshua, who testified two weeks ago that he was pressured to slant news coverage in Netanyahu's favor in a bid to obtain regulatory concessions

Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel
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Former Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua at Jerusalem District Court last month.
Former Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua at Jerusalem District Court last month.Credit: Emil Salman
Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel

During the first day of the cross-examination of Ilan Yeshua, the main witness in Case 4000, the defense focused on attempts to demonstrate that the former CEO of Walla interfered in the work of the editors as a routine matter, even prior to Shaul Elovitch’s instructions. Yeshua confirmed that “interfering in content can happen,” but stressed that “up to a certain point, in different dosages.”

Attorney Jacques Chen, who is representing Elovitch, Walla’s former controlling shareholder, presented a 2013 interview of Yeshua on Ha’ayin Hashvi’it (The Seventh Eye) website that reports on the media, in which there were complaints about his intervention in the contents of the website for commercial reasons, which are not related to the crimes attributed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Elovitch. Yeshua admitted that he had done so, but said that intervention on those subjects was “minimal, and at a low and reasonable level, not intensive, as is common on all the websites.” He denied the claim in the article that he was actually the acting editor of the website.

“The company has commercial interests,” said Yeshua, “and I said in the interview that in the balance between editorial considerations and commercial considerations, the journalistic considerations take precedence. In every journalistic organization there’s tension between content and commerce, these are human beings. There’s a deputy CEO for content and there’s an editor-in-chief, each wants something different. If I interfere and make a decision, sometimes it’s for the sake of the content and sometimes for the sake of the advertiser. That may be a mistake, but it happened very rarely and was inconsequential. We may even have removed an article or improved it, maybe only in Haaretz that doesn’t exist.”

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The commercial interests to which Yeshua was referring were related both to the direct activity of the website and its advertisers, and to the mother company Bezeq and its business interests. “In an ideal world, the best thing is not to do that – but in life that’s how it works. It began because I received a comment from Shaul [Elovitch], but it’s possible that it would have happened even without that. Even without him I would have done that.”

Yeshua said that while the article focused on commercial considerations, it didn’t discuss the political considerations that already then were behind a change of the website content in favor of Netanyahu. “The article was posted months after the 2013 election, it wasn’t by chance,” he says. “They attributed it to whims, to cooperation agreements and other relationships that were inconsequential,” he said. “Most of the changes stemmed from political pressures that they were unaware of, they didn’t know that it was related to the Likud campaign. We hid it well. The journalists explained that they wrote articles favorable to Likud for campaigns, that’s also commercial. I replied honestly that I interfered for commercial reasons, but the description was incorrect.

“Tali Ben Ovadia had already been fired, Yinon [Magal] wanted to resign three times,” continued Yeshua. “That created the ferment, but we concealed it. They didn’t notice, it took them time. Yinon sat next to me and said that there’s no interference, and before that he wrote to me ‘What’s this crazy takeover.’ He said that we had gone completely crazy. The intensity of the intervention and its regularity, which had already caused an editor to leave, that’s what characterized that period.”

Yeshua blamed the replacing of the editors-in-chief on Elovitch, who as controlling shareholder in Walla presented himself as the acting publisher of the website. “I said in an interview that I was the publisher, but that wasn’t true. Ben Ovadia was fired because Shaul wanted that. Until he arrived I was a kind of publisher, and from then on he decided. I didn’t want her to go, I worked for four months to have her come back??".

In reply to the comment by attorney Chen that Elovitch wasn’t in the media world,” Yeshua said: “Shaul is a media tycoon. I don’t know how to prove it, that’s what I read about him and that’s what I knew about him and I had the impression that nobody knows the media system as he does, 100 times more than I, he knows all the newspaper editors and is an expert through and through.”

'Illogical coverage'

One of the arguments of Elovitch’s defense is that skewing the Walla coverage was designed to lend it a less left-wing character. In an attempt to prove that Yeshua himself was politically biased against Netanyahu, Chen asked him about his testimony to the police, to the effect that he had told Walla employees that Netanyahu “is doing horrible things’ and “destroying the Zionist enterprise.” Yeshua said that these things were said after “we had to remove reports about bereaved families because Netanyahu didn’t like it.” The report was related to the protest of the family of Hadar Goldin, who was killed during Operation Protective Edge, the 2014 war in Gaza. Goldin’s body is being held by Hamas.

Yeshua's statement regarding the bereaved families is "baseless," sources related to Netanyahu said Wednesday. Moreover, the indictment against Netanyahu does not ascribe him any involvement in this matter.

"The prime minister, a bereaved brother himself, have always respected bereaved families, he is familiar with their pain and acknowledge their contribution to the country," they added.

“That really is a harsh statement,” replied Yeshua. “It was in response to skewed and illogical coverage. That was the result of a long period when I had nothing to tell people, that wasn’t my opinion. The interference didn’t come from me, I was forced to agree and they forced me, but I think that he [Netanyahu] is destroying the country. That’s the context.

“I wanted to explain why we do what we do, so they’ll understand that it doesn’t come from the management. I thought that they would know that in order to create some balance, because they were practicing total self-censorship. I wanted them to know, I saw what was happening. The reporters weren’t writing anything and I wanted to create a balance. I knew that even if it happened, it would be removed five minutes later. I didn’t convene a meeting and say ‘Bibi is destroying the Zionist enterprise, that’s my motto.’ I made that statement once or twice. I wouldn’t have dreamed of going to the editorial board and talking about my political opinions without that.”

Chen asked about Yeshua’s words to the effect that “The entire editorial board knew that I voted for Buji [Isaac Herzog], the entire editorial board knew that Netanyahu was doing terrible things.” He claimed that this statement proves that his disgust with Netanyahu’s behavior was known to the editors, and that it contradicts his words during the investigation. “Unequivocally, it’s contradictory,” admitted Yeshua. “The things I said in the investigation were after a period when I was forced to explain totally crazy things that we were doing. I didn’t indoctrinate the editorial board. It’s possible that during the investigation I was more outspoken.”

Yeshua said that there was great agitation among the Walla editorial board after he asked the editors to edit the site as “Israeli, neither left-wing nor right-wing.” “It’s possible that that’s how I said that there are commercial considerations, and there are also political ones. It’s possible that that’s how I started to introduce the familiar narrative that was dictated from above, that here we see the first signs of the narrative that we’re a leftist website.”

Yeshua was asked about things he said to Zeev Rubinstein, a confidant of the Netanyahus, to the effect that he would help to advance their requests and that it’s important ‘to make them feel good.” He replied that Rubinstein was “a senior officer in [their] Byzantine court, and would transmit to him “crazy and bizarre requests by Sara Netanyahu.”

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