The first witness in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu trial told the Jerusalem court on Monday that his boss feared that any news story angering Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, would kill his chances of getting regulatory relief.
The witness, Ilan Yeshua, served at the time as CEO of Walla, an internet news site owned by the Bezeq telecommunications company. Netanyahu is charged with bribery for having allegedly conferred massive regulatory benefits on Bezeq in exchange for favorable coverage on Walla.
In one incident, Yeshua said Bezeq’s owner, Shaul Elovitch, told him, “Take that article down immediately, because he has to sign something for me this week.” Elovitch added that if Netanyahu’s wife Sara got angry, then so would Netanyahu, “and then he won’t sign.”
Elovitch and his wife Iris are also charged with bribery.
Netanyahu started intervening in Walla’s coverage in late 2012, Yeshua told the Jerusalem District Court, and “all the requests came from the prime minister and his family.” The Netanyahus requested both that negative articles about Netanyahu and his wife be removed and that positive ones be posted.
At times, they also requested negative articles about Netanyahu’s opponents, like MKs Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked. In Bennett’s case, Yeshua said, there were requests for negative articles about his wife and father as well. Initially, the requests were transmitted by Shaul Elovitch – “sometimes several times a day, sometimes a week of quiet.”
Gradually, Iris Elovitch also got involved, Yeshua said, and after he and the Elovitches set up a WhatsApp group to coordinate coverage of Netanyahu, she became much more involved.
“Shaul told me, ‘I don’t have time to deal with this, Iris will be the supreme editor,’” Yeshua said. “It was extreme. We got into a situation where something would spend hours in editing over what exact word and what headline and what picture and how long (it would stay up) and when it would be taken down.”
All media outlets get requests about coverage, but “not like this,” he added. “Ten years of requests from all other politicians put together weren’t like a week of the prime minister and his wife.”
Netanyahu effectively received “full editorial control” over Walla, he said. “We were even forbidden to publish people’s responses.”
At times, dealing with the Netanyahus’ requests occupied “30 to 40 percent and even 50 percent of my time. Seventy percent of my interactions as CEO with Shaul Elovitch were about coverage of Netanyahu.”
Netanyahu also intervened in appointments at Walla and brought about the departure of editor-in-chief Tali Ben Ovadia, Yeshua said. “We sent her away shortly after she arrived because she was seen as opposing the prime minister. She wrote something denouncing him and we were asked to remove her.”
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Yeshua said Elovitch ordered him to “do everything Nir Hefetz asks.” Hefetz, who at the time was an adviser to the Netanyahu family, “would send me a request to remove an article, and within a minute, the request would also come from Shaul. Usually, Nir didn’t even have to ask explicitly.”
Starting in 2014, Yeshua said he was also told to obey requests from businessman Zeev Rubinstein, who was close to Sara Netanyahu – “to view his requests as if Shaul were asking. After that, a flood of emails, WhatsApps and text messages started.”
Often, he said, he would get a request from Hefetz, then again from Rubinstein, “and sometimes, a minute later, from Shaul.” Rubinstein’s requests mostly related to Sara Netanyahu, he added.
Yeshua said that Elovitch explicitly connected favorable coverage of Netanyahu with the regulatory benefits he hoped to obtain from the government. For instance, Elovitch once told him, “Take down this article, I’ll kill you. Tomorrow he needs to sign off on Yes for me,” referring to a deal to merge the Yes satellite television broadcaster with Bezeq.
Netanyahu, who was serving at the time as communications minister as well as prime minister, did in fact approve the deal.
Yeshua said most of the requests came to him through intermediaries like Hefetz and Rubinstein, but there were many cases in which Elovitch said Netanyahu had contacted him personally, and Iris Elovitch was often contacted personally by Sara Netanyahu. There were also a few cases in which Hefetz sent requests on behalf of Netanyahu’s son Yair.
When prosecutor Judith Tirosh asked what Yeshua knew about Elovitch’s troubles at Bezeq, he said Elovitch had told him that Netanyahu’s predecessor as communications minister, Gilad Erdan, and Erdan’s ministry director general, Avi Berger, “are embittering my life.”
Elovitch, he said, frequently told him that the need to placate Netanyahu with favorable coverage “is ‘only for a while. This is a sensitive time; tomorrow, he has to sign off on this. We don’t care about journalism; we care about this’” – where “this” referred to “some regulatory decision.” Similarly, Iris Elovitch told him “this is a sensitive time; after we’ve gotten certain benefits, it will be okay.”
Yeshua said it was impossible to predict what Netanyahu would get upset about, but his threshold for annoyance was “very low.”
“Sometimes I was amazed. Many things weren’t connected to politics at all. A discussion would start, I’d say this is crazy, and Shaul and Iris, each of them separately and sometimes together, would say it’s crazy, but there’s no choice.”
Though Yeshua claimed he fought over every request, he admitted that “90 percent of the requests were fulfilled.” But sometimes, compliance was unthinkable, as when he was asked to run an article alleging sexual harassment against journalist Avner Hofstein. “There was no evidence, it was simply impossible.”
If one of Netanyahu’s requests was rejected, he said, “a bitter fight occurred, until in the end, in most cases, it (the request) was granted. I was like a battered wife.” And when requests were nevertheless rebuffed, it was often not because Yeshua refused, but because the journalists working under him did so, he admitted.
Yeshua said the Elovitches “didn’t want the editors to know about their connection with the coverage requests.” But the journalists knew that any article unflattering to Netanyahu would be taken down, so they engaged in self-censorship, he said.
“I too reached the point where I’d see a negative article and get scared and say ‘take this down immediately.’ I’d get a question mark from Shaul or Iris, and they didn’t even have to explain. I’d be trembling and reply ‘it was taken down.’ It was a mechanism of appeasement.”
Nevertheless, he said, the orders also frequently spurred Walla’s journalists to revolt, resulting in angry screaming matches. For instance, he said, Walla’s former editor-in-chief, Yinon Magal, protested the tilted coverage repeatedly and finally quit.
“When you see the nature of the requests, their substance and the obsession over every word, then even someone like Yinon Magal, who loves Netanyahu and isn’t a leftist, left my office slamming the door behind him 1,000 times and said, ‘What do they want from us? It’s crazy. ... What is this abomination we’re committing here?’”
In his conversations with the Elovitches, Yeshua said, Netanyahu was often referred to as “Kim,” after North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, while Sara Netanyahu was Ri Sol-ju, after Kim’s wife. As for Hefetz, he was termed “the Rottweiler.”