The testimony of former Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua in the public corruption trial of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu before the Jerusalem District Court concluded on Monday afternoon after six months.
After Yeshua finished his testimony, the trial’s second witness, former Walla chief editor, Aviram Elad, was called to testify and he said that there had been blatant and improper interventions in the outlet’s reporting on behalf of Netanyahu and his family.
After one month of questioning by the prosecution back in April, Yeshua was cross-examined for about two months by the defense until the summer recess, followed by additional defense questioning when the trial reopened on September 13.
On Monday, the prosecution questioned Yeshua for several hours as part of the rebuttal questioning process, with the goal of trying to repair damage done by the defense during cross-examination.
In one example, the sides dueled over an article posted on the website in which former New York mayor Rudi Giuliani supported Netanyahu’s controversial 2015 speech to the US Congress against the Obama administration’s support for a nuclear deal with Iran, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
In the first round of questioning, the prosecution presented this time as an example of Netanyahu’s interference with how Walla operated.
The defense tried to minimize its significance, arguing that the item was only up on the website in the middle of the night.
During rebuttal questioning, the prosecution showed that the article was already online at around 10:00 p.m., still considered prime time for news sites.
Similarly, Monday saw a lot of the same all-out legal war between the lawyers over nuances regarding which side had correctly framed Yeshua’s role and character in the case, with the judges having to intervene numerous times to calm the waters.
All of the proceedings to date have been part of the prosecution’s efforts to prove media bribery in Case 4000, the Walla-Bezeq Affair.
In order to convict Netanyahu in the case, the prosecution needs to prove two parallel components.
The first one is that the former prime minister, and his aides at his direction, allegedly systematically managed Walla’s media coverage in around 315 incidents between the years 2013-2016.
A related second component would be that Netanyahu allegedly used his power as prime minister and communications minister to influence government policy to help Shaul Elovitch, the joint owner of Walla and Bezeq, to the tune of NIS 1.8 billion in value, in exchange for control of large aspects of Walla’s coverage.
Former Walla news editor Michal Klein and former desk chief Amit Shkady are expected to testify after Elad, whose testimony is not expected to be as drawn out as was Yeshua’s testimony.
On Monday, Elad gave multiple examples where he said he was pressured into posting pro-Netanyahu articles or acting against Netanyahu’s competitors regarding the site’s coverage.
Elad recounted being threatened that if he did not cooperate with the Netanyahu requests, the Walla site might fall apart due to impacts the then prime minister could have on other business interests of the site’s owner, Shaul Elovitch.
DURING PROSECUTION questioning of Yeshua, a strong case was made that Netanyahu and his aides had intervened in a massive variety of instances both to get Netanyahu positive coverage, to get greater exposure for positive Netanyahu items, to secure negative coverage of Netanyahu’s political competitors and to downplay any stories which were not to the advantage of the former prime minister.
In an astounding volume of text messages between Yeshua and Elovitch as well as to aides of Netanyahu, evidence presented showed an unprecedented level of control and phraseology that many commentators identified as mafia-style interactions in terms of the use of code words to obfuscate their meaning in the event that the messages should ever be obtained by police.
There were also many messages in which Elovitch specifically instructed Yeshua to take actions at Walla that Netanyahu wanted, which the magnate specifically tied to getting the prime minister to sign off on concrete government decisions that would help Bezeq.
The defense then spent months tearing into Yeshua’s credibility.
They showed that Yeshua did numerous “transactions” of positive coverage for access with Netanyahu rivals, such as current President Isaac Herzog, Avi Gabay, Avigdor Liberman and many others.
In some cases, they even showed that some of these politicians may have made positive statements to business people to get them to make certain deals with Walla.
Further, the defense got Yeshua to admit over and over again that texts that he sent to people were outright lies.
Eventually, the number of texts that he admitted was lies got so high that some of the judges asked him if he could give them some kind of code or guidance to be able to recognize when he was telling the truth.
Critically, the defense also got Yeshua to admit to numerous instances in which he acted independently to cut deals relating to Netanyahu or with other political officials – without being directed to do so by Elovitch – in order to help Bezeq.
Both the prosecution and the defense have won some tactical victories along the way.
As of September 26, the prosecution won the right to expand and look into new evidence against Netanyahu relating to another former Walla chief editor Avi Alkalai.
However, this only came after the defense embarrassed the prosecution when it secured a court order to compel the state to review and turn over new large volumes of texts Yeshua had sent relating to Netanyahu’s competitors.
The prosecution had wanted to claim that these were irrelevant to whether or not Netanyahu was guilty.
But, in a possible early indication of the court’s thinking, the defense convinced the judges that presenting more evidence about how Walla operated with other politicians could help prove that there was no unique bribery scheme for Netanyahu – it highlighted that Walla just violated journalistic ethics across-the-board.