The biggest headlines for the trial of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu came in its early days when former Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua accused him or his messengers of media bribery.
And yet last week and this week, the less covered testimony and cross-examination of former communications ministry director-general Avi Berger may actually be far more decisive regarding the former prime minister and current opposition leader’s fate.
There are two parts to Case 4000, the Bezeq-Walla Affair.
One part is the accusation that Netanyahu got control over Walla coverage; and the other is that the then-prime minister and communications minister influenced government policy to favor Bezeq.
The connector between Walla and Bezeq was Shaul Elovitch, who owned both.
To date, the judges have seen the prosecution present an impressive and deep case of interference with Walla’s coverage by Netanyahu messengers – allegedly at his order.
At the same time, the defense succeeded at showing that Yeshua sometimes went rogue and intervened with his reporter’s coverage of Netanyahu without being asked, or sometimes intervened in favor of Netanyahu’s competitors like Isaac Herzog or Avigdor Liberman.
Further, the defense tried to separate Netanyahu himself from the actions of his messengers.
Though the defense cannot make the deep evidence of interference at Walla helping Netanyahu disappear, the narrative they hoped would sow doubt among the judges was that Netanyahu just got the most attention in a Walla system in which many politicians got special treatment.
That would not sound criminal or like bribery.
But Berger then came to testify that Netanyahu ordered him to follow orders from his aide Eitan Tzfarir, who ordered him to go along with two hugely controversial measures to help Bezeq/Elovitch.
These two measures were approving the controversial Bezeq-YES merger and indefinitely delaying reforms to help other companies compete with Bezeq.
Put simply, Berger said Netanyahu abused his power as a minister to ingratiate himself with Elovitch.
If the judges may be on the fence about how to frame Netanyahu’s special treatment, Berger’s testimony about Netanyahu’s actions with the communications ministry could put them over toward a guilty verdict.
It is one thing to be unsure in a vacuum why Netanyahu got special treatment. It is quite another when Berger can give the prosecution proof of the quid pro quo they want to hang around Netanyahu’s neck.
Berger’s testimony may not only change how the judges look back at the mixed Walla evidence.
It could also, in one fell swoop, make Netanyahu distinctive as compared to all the other politicians whom Yeshua gave special treatment.
In other words, Berger’s accusations, if true, would prove that Netanyahu was unique to the extreme – he did not just get positive coverage from Walla, but only he, among the politicians, delivered NIS 1.8 billion of value to Elovitch in exchange.
Who knows whether the other politicians might or might not have done the same given the same power, but Berger’s evidence could prove they simply did not have the same power. This would mean there is no comparison to make.
The Berger narrative also helps the prosecution answer why Netanyahu is the first (or really the second) public official to face a media bribery charge – none of the others had the same power, creativity or audacity to make the same alleged moves.
This is not to say that the case has been lost due to Berger’s testimony.
The defense has succeeded at raising some questions about whether the ministry’s experts categorically opposed the Bezeq-YES merger or whether they just had strong conditions.
Moreover, the defense has raised some evidence that suggests only Tzafrir directly ordered Berger to approve the merger, and that evidence relating to Netanyahu connects more to issues with Channel 10 television.
On Monday, the defense also argued to the court that Netanyahu would not have given Gilad Erdan extra time as communications minister to continue the reforms process if he was corruptly and manifestly opposed.
And most of the direct evidence about Netanyahu’s mindset will only be raised later by his former aides Nir Hefetz and Shlomo Filber.
But Berger has a lot of credibility as an expert and unlike the two Netanyahu aides who changed their stories to go against Netanyahu when they became state’s witnesses – he has been consistently against the former prime minister.
In addition, he does not exaggerate and grants Netanyahu side points alongside his accusations.
In the end, the trial will come down to Hefetz, Filber, Netanyahu and Elovitch on the stand.
But Berger may be the legal warfare silver bullet that no one fully saw coming.