It was late at night and dark in December 2016.
Powerful Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua, the ruler of the second-biggest Hebrew-language news website in Israel since 2006, was sitting in his car in a state of complete shock and could not move to go into his house for 10 minutes until he calmed down.
Seemingly out of the blue, he had just been ordered by the even more powerful Shaul Elovitch – then the owner of both Walla and the telecommunications giant Bezeq – that he should systematically destroy text messages and other evidence connected to what we would eventually call Case 4000.
In another shock, he was told that this all could lead to criminal charges and the downfall of the biggest juggernaut in Israel’s pond, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself, if it was not handled properly.
This was the stunning and dramatic story Yeshua told the Jerusalem District Court on Tuesday of how Netanyahu’s criminal problems started long before we regular members of the public knew what was brewing.
According to Yeshua, it was in those moments that he decided to break with Elovitch and to seek legal counsel.
By early the next morning, he had already met with lawyers and told them everything.
Everything included that Elovitch had also ordered him to coordinate narratives with him and with Netanyahu in anticipation of any possible future police probe.
“If we all destroy the text messages, and we all say there was nothing, then the police will have nothing,” Yeshua testified that Elovitch told him.
The lawyers took notes and placed the notes in a safe.
From there, Yeshua went to work and immediately informed his top editors that they were to halt the special treatment that Netanyahu had been receiving since early 2013 no matter who demanded or who threatened them.
When Elovitch complained that Yeshua’s new independent streak for Walla would ruin Elovitch’s ability to call in favors from Netanyahu on communications policy, the former Walla CEO was unmoved.
When Elovitch asked him if he had deleted all text-message evidence of the four years of media schemes and unusual Netanyahu influence, Yeshua lied and said he had – though he had carefully saved them for a rainy day.
As Yeshua told this story in court, Shaul Elovitch alternated between writing furiously in a notebook, calling over his lawyers to lecture them (presumably about how to respond), looking furious, bouncing his leg nervously and making angry comments under his breath.
The day before, on Monday, his wife Iris had interrupted Yeshua’s testimony, calling out: “How much can you lie?”
It was around a year before Yeshua produced the text messages and recordings for the police, but when he did, the avalanche started.
The evidence Yeshua gave police led then-Communications Ministry director-general and former Netanyahu campaign manager Shlomo Filber to flip against the prime minister.
A combination of Yeshua’s evidence, Filber flipping and other issues brought Netanyahu’s former top aide Nir Hefetz to also flip against him.
Combined, these three witnesses brought Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit to the conclusion that he had to indict Netanyahu for bribery in Case 4000. The nation’s future was radically altered.
For the moment, Netanyahu is still prime minister.
Ever since Mandelblit and the prosecution hinted they were moving toward indicting him in November 2018, Netanyahu has lost the ability to dominate the country’s politics. He has gradually drawn closer to a point where his criminal problems could force him out of the prime minister’s chair, despite maintaining a serious political base.
All this began with those 10 minutes in December 2016.
Yeshua is no hero and does not present himself as such.
He considers himself as having failed ethically from 2013-2016 when he followed orders to tilt Walla’s coverage toward Netanyahu. He had thought only that his actions were merely unbecoming.
But erasing evidence and talk of criminal culpability went too far for him. When he said “enough,” that was when the country’s destiny began to shift.