A former media adviser to the Netanyahu family took the stand again Monday, telling how the Walla news website allegedly gave positive coverage to then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in exchange for favors for the site's parent company.
Nir Hefetz also testified that in 2009, while Hefetz was working for the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, Netanyahu told him "that he could cut down the weekend edition of [rival] Israel Hayom to 80,000 copies." Hefetz said that Netanyahu, in 2009 the opposition leader, asked him to tell this to Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes, and Hefetz complied.
"I asked if I should return to Netanyahu with a message and Mozes said no .... He told me that he didn't believe him [Netanyahu], but he certainly told me not to return with any message to Netanyahu," Hefetz said.
Walla and Yedioth Ahronoth are the two news organizations where Netanyahu sought positive coverage in exchange for favors, prosecutors say.
Also at Monday’s hearing, prosecutor Amir Tabenkin showed Hefetz correspondence from 2016 between Hefetz and Ilan Yeshua, the CEO of Walla at the time, regarding a visit by Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, to a military unit during the Purim holiday.
Hefetz testified that he provided Walla with a news release about the visit and within an hour received a reply from Yeshua that it had become the website's headline story 20 minutes earlier.
Asked about the extent to which such placement on the Walla website was unusual, Hefetz said this was “special” on Israel’s media landscape. “It was routine that almost always, whatever I sent appeared on the homepage in a prominent location. It was a demand by Benjamin Netanyahu that was always complied with. I don’t remember an instance when it wasn’t.”
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This testimony is part of allegations in so-called Case 4000 in which the former prime minister, who was also communications minister, allegedly traded lucrative regulatory concessions to Walla’s parent firm, telecom company Bezeq, in return for favorable coverage on Walla. Netanyahu is charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in the case, one of three corruption cases against him.
Hefetz turned state’s evidence in the case and is expected to testify in the two other cases against Netanyahu, which the police call Case 1000 and Case 2000. The prime minister denies any wrongdoing.
Hefetz also described his decision to turn state’s evidence. “I was accused of obstruction [of an investigation]. It would have been possible to leave me in custody forever. On social media they say I’m a traitor, but there’s another side to the story of how far you take your loyalty.”
Hefetz said he was weak at the time. “I was in custody for 15 days. Since heavy pressure was put on me [by investigators], I decided that, like someone who goes in for surgery and is in the doctor’s hands, I would defer my judgment to what the lawyer told me.” He considered turning state’s evidence after about 11 days in custody, Hefetz told the court.
Tabenkin showed Hefetz correspondence between Hefetz and Yeshua on an event attended by Sara Netanyahu that appears to reinforce allegations that Walla was responsive to requests to provide news coverage of the prime minister and his wife. In connection with the event attended by Sara Netanyahu, the correspondence shows that Yeshua replied: “Going up on the homepage immediately, attaching a nice video.”
In testimony by previous witnesses, Netanyahu’s defense lawyers have strived to show that other politicians also received favorable coverage from Walla. In Monday’s testimony on coverage of Sara Netanyahu’s appearances on the site, Hefetz said that to the best of his knowledge, Walla tended to run such stories “always in a prominent place on the homepage.”
“It could be that other friendly news outlets did so,” he said, but added that “at Walla, I don’t remember [a time when] they didn’t.”
In testimony last week, Hefetz described an interaction with Walla during the 2015 Knesset election campaign when Likud leader Netanyahu was striving to remain prime minister. “In practice, we, the Likud headquarters, decided what the news items would be” on Walla. “Anything that we asked for was done to the very end, without any reservations.”
Hefetz wrapped up his testimony on Case 4000 on Monday and is expected to testify on the two other cases, the first being Case 1000 in which prosecutors say Netanyahu and his wife improperly received lavish gifts from wealthy businessmen. In Case 2000, Netanyahu allegedly tried to negotiate favorable coverage from Yedioth Ahronoth in exchange for legislation that would suppress competition against the newspaper.
Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing in those cases as well, saying that the gifts were from friends and that he never intended to follow through on the discussions with Mozes at Yedioth.