Key Witness in Netanyahu Trial Grilled on 'Favorable Coverage' of Other Politicians

In cross-examination of former editor of Walla news site, Netanyahu's defense works to show that other politicians intervened to influence coverage

Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel
Ilan Yeshua in court, Wednesday.
Ilan Yeshua in court, Wednesday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel

The trial of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu resumed Wednesday in Jerusalem District Court, as his attorneys continued to press the Walla news website’s former CEO in an effort to prove that politicians other than Netanyahu had approached him to obtain favorable coverage.

During his cross-examination of former Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua, Netanyahu’s attorney Boaz Ben Zur presented correspondence regarding favorable coverage that was allegedly given to Miri Regev, Ofir Akunis, and to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett when he chaired the Habayit Hayehudi party.

The testimony is connected to what is known as Case 4000, in which Netanyahu is accused of having provided regulatory concessions and other favors in return for favorable coverage at Walla.

“Dozens upon dozens of people approached you, an endless number of requests on the issue of coverage; that’s the [evidentiary] foundation that has been built until now,” said Ben Zur. “That’s our work premise. The material speaks [for itself].” The correspondence indicates that Yeshua intervened in the coverage of Regev when she was culture minister.

Presented was an exchange of messages between Yeshua and former Walla editor Aviram Elad regarding a headline given to an article about Regev’s appearance at the Cannes Film Festival in 2017, to which she wore a dress whose skirt depicted the Jerusalem skyline. According to the defense attorneys, the report first went up with the headline, “Jerusalem of craziness: Regev’s gaffe will be remembered,” but on Yeshua’s order, it was changed to: “Jerusalem Syndrome: What did we think about Miri Regev’s Western Wall dress at Cannes?”

In the messages submitted to the court, Elad wrote to Yeshua, “You are insulting my intelligence and doing harm to the company.” And Yeshua responded, “No media outlet operates in a vacuum. Even Amos Shocken [Haaretz’s publisher] tried to toe the line with Nochi [businessman Nochi Dankner] and I can also promise you that he won’t write a critical article tomorrow about Nevzlin [Leonid Nevzlin, who owns 20 percent of Haaretz’s shares].” Upon being confronted with the correspondence, Yeshua claimed that the decision to change the Regev headline was Elad’s.

Ben Zur also presented correspondence from 2012 between Yeshua and Shai Hayak, who was Likud MK Akunis’ spokesman. In one of the messages, Hayak asked Yeshua to “give prominence” to a story about Akunis. In other correspondence between the two, during Operation Pillar of Defense in the Gaza Strip, Yeshua wrote to Hayak, complimenting him on a headline that appeared in Walla that said heavy damage had been done to Hamas. In response Hayak thanked Yeshua and wrote, “There’s no one like you.” In response to a question by Ben Zur, Yeshua admitted that he had been involved in posting the story and positioning it on the website.

Two days later, Hayak sent another message to Yeshua, in which he wrote: “They haven’t spoken to me yet.” Yeshua replied: “A guy who’s also named Shai will talk to you ... talk to him straight, he was instructed to indulge in a big way.” Ben Zur asked Yeshua if this had been his directive, and Yeshua replied: “It’s possible.” Ben-Tzur asked: “What is ‘to indulge in a big way’?” And Yeshua said: “I don’t know, maybe a campaign. This Shai isn’t an editorial staffer.”

Ben Zur later presented correspondence between Yeshua and Akunis. Yeshua: “A strong performance, everyone’s applauding you, good for you!! … You were a 10! Focused, fair and smart.” And Akunis responded, “Give my thanks to everyone.” Ben Zur later confronted Yeshua with correspondence indicating that during the 2015 election campaign, ties were forged between him and Bennett, then chairman of Habayit Hayehudi. Ben Zur presented a message that Yeshua sent to former Walla editor Avi Alkalai, “Lower the flames against Yinon also [Yinon Magal, who had been an editor at Walla and later joined Habayit Hayehudi], as well as against Bennett and Habayit Hayehudi. The article by Nahmias is excellent but you have to keep an eye on the dosages.” Ben Zur asked Yeshua what he meant by “lower the flames.” Yeshua replied: “Not to attack so hard, I don’t remember, I felt sorry [for them].”

Ben Zur then presented a message sent to Yeshua by Ran Boker, a writer for Ynet, in January 2015, that said, “From an examination conducted by Ynet it emerges that during the past two years Walla has expressed almost no criticism of the Habayit Hayehudi party … Was this at the instruction of outgoing editor Yinon Magal, who jumped from his job at Walla to the seventh spot on the Habayit Hayehudi slate for Knesset?” Yeshua told the court, “There had been no such instruction … there’s no connection between these things.”

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