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Netanyahu's Corruption Trial Shows He Received Something Far More Valuable Than Money

Testimony of former news site CEO shows that for years a bribery culture dominated Israels largest media company

Gidi Weitz
Gidi Weitz
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Benjamin Netanyahu, right, in court in Jerusalem this week.
Benjamin Netanyahu, right, in court in Jerusalem this week.Credit: Abir Sultan / Pool / AFP
Gidi Weitz
Gidi Weitz

In the Bezeq-Walla case, you won’t find envelopes stuffed with cash passing from hand to hand in smoke-filled rooms as in the Talansky and Holyland cases against former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Nor does it involve money transfers to tax shelters, as in the Siemens and Electric Corporation case, or bribery in the form of electronic devices and flights abroad, as then-MK Faina Kirshenbaum received in the Yisrael Beiteinu case.

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But the testimony of ex-Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua in Case 4000 this week made it clear that in this case too the actors were motivated by money. Big money.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been charged with fraud, bribery and breach of trust. He is accused of supporting looser regulation of Israeli telecommunications giant Bezeq in exchange for favorable coverage on the Bezeq-owned news website Walla.

Prosecutor Judith Tirosh showed the court Wednesday text messages from a WhatsApp group chat consisting of Yeshua, Bezeq controlling shareholders Shaul Elovitch and his son Or Elovitch. “I understand we’ll repay the profit from Yad2 with compound interest,” Elovitch junior notes bitterly, after Yeshua liberated Walla from the yoke of censorship and the site resumed publishing critical reports about the prime minister.

Yeshua made it clear in his testimony exactly what Elovitch’s son meant. In 2014 Walla sold Yad2, Israel’s largest classified ads website, to the German corporation Axel Springer for 788 million shekels ($228 million), bringing a large dividend to Bezeq (and to Yeshua himself). Now Or Elovitch feared that after the oxygen line to Netanyahu was pulled, the hand that fed the monopoly would want to punish it.

Bezeq CEO Stella Handler called Yeshua and warned him of the repercussions of publishing items critical of the prime minister. “This is insanity,” she told him. “We’ll get clobbered for this.”

Those conversations took place in early 2017, right after the scandal that came to be known as Case 2000 was reported – in which Netanyahu is accused of discussing a quid pro quo with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes – and after Shaul Elovitch called Yeshua to an urgent nighttime meeting at his home in the tony northern Tel Avis suburb of Tzahala. Elovitch ordered Yeshua to destroy his phone, making it clear to him that if an investigation opens he will have to lie to protect Elovitch and Netanyahu.

Yeshua said the thought of crossing the line into criminal activity led him to the decision to stop playing ball with the Elovitches and the Netanyahus.

Bezeq executives who were appalled at this demonstration of independence tried to change his mind. Hendler’s and Or Elovitch blatant requests from Yeshua show that for years a bribery culture dominated Israel’s largest media company: If we don’t grant favors to the ruling power, we’ll lose millions of shekels that depend on regulatory decisions.

This week the masks were torn off, revealing what had been hiding behind seemingly harmless terms such as “favorable coverage” or “irregular response.” Yeshua’s testimony showed that the favors given to the prime minister were worth money and exploded the soap bubble blown by Netanyahu’s mouthpieces that it was altogether “two and a half stories about Sara Netanyahu,” the prime minister’s wife.

Had Shaul Elovitch given Likud free advertising space in Walla on the eve of a national election, no one would have denied this was a perk. Censorship and fawning coverage are worth much more than that.

Elovitch’s comment to Yeshua, “Bezeq is worth 100 tons, Walla is worth a gram,” explains why the news site was sacrificed on the owner’s altar of interests. Walla was forced to pay the price of Elovitch’s subjugation to the prime minister.

Yeshua estimated in his testimony that 70 percent of his interactions with his bosses pertained to slanting the coverage. He described the endless procession of editors replaced one after the other because they refused to toe the anti-journalistic line and received hundreds of thousands of shekels in severance fees. He told the court of the difficulty in hiring star reporters who were suspected by the prime minister’s people of “independence” and the staff’s rebellions against the orders that were handed down.

Shaul Elovitch arrives for a hearing in Jerusalem's District Court, this week.Credit: Abir Sultan/Pool via REUTERS

In the coming days he will most probably tell how he stopped a disobedient reporter’s work but continued paying his wages, just to prevent him from criticizing the government. The economic and PR damage all these caused Walla was measured in grams, while the profit Elovitch gained was in tons.

The story also has a class aspect. Executives in suits and ties, earning millions of shekels a year, expected journalists who earn one thousandth of it to renounce their dignity and professional independence just to continue milking the cow for cash.

Those who attended the court hearings this week couldn’t but feel compassion for the case’s protagonists. The journalists who came to court couldn’t contact that Elovitches, who stayed in the courtroom during the recesses as well. Yeshua had no contact with them, either. He testified sitting down, facing the three judges. When he entered and left the court he was accompanied by two guards. Only once did Iris Elovitch fail to contain her rage and blurted toward him: “how much you can lie?”

Her lawyer, Michal Rosen-Ozer, quickly calmed her down.

The plot’s hero, Benjamin Netanyahu, has so far remained absent. His spirit hovered in the courtroom but no direct evidence was shown to tie him to the alliance of interests. This evidence is expected to be provided by the two state witnesses who will testify in the coming months. They are Nir Hefetz, who was the Netanyahus’ envoy for slanting the coverage in Walla, and former Communication Ministry Director General Shlomo Filber, who testified that Netanyahu had instructed him to benefit Elovitch. The two will be asked to open a window to the prime minister’s consciousness and answer the million-dollar question: did Netanyahu advance Elovitch’s interests when he served as communication minister, knowing that in exchange he’d receive extremely excessive influence on a leading media outlet?

Yeshua’s testimony is expected to continue for several weeks. Then the Elovitches’ lawyers, Boaz Ben Zur, Jacques Hen and Rosen-Ozer, will try to undermine his testimony in cross examination. This week they claimed that the version Yeshua had given the Israel Securities Authority was more cautious than the one he gave in court and promised to expose the differences between the versions.

“He came here mobilized,” one of these lawyers said to a colleague at one of the recesses. “Today he’s humoring the prosecution like he humored the Elovitches.”

During the first week’s court hearings consultations with the party leaders were held in the president’s residence, after which Netanyahu once again received the mandate to assenble a government. The coalition negotiations results will have one practical implication for the security guards in court. When defendant No. 1 came to hear Prosecutor Liat Ben Ari’s opening statement, the compound turned into a fortified area. By the time he comes to hear Hefetz’s and Filber’s testimonies, this may no longer be necessary.

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