There have been many firsts in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s legal cases.
He was the first sitting prime minister to be indicted by the attorney-general and the first who was forced to appear in pretrial hearings in the dock as a defendant.
But when Ilan Yeshua, the former Walla CEO, ascends the witness stand on Monday to testify before the Jerusalem District Court, that will be by far the most important and historic first moment.
In fact, the only larger moment may be the verdict and sentence (if there is a conviction) sometime between mid-2022 and early 2024.
If convicted of bribery, Netanyahu will be forced from office and likely serve jail time, and Monday’s hearing pushes that train forward.
From Monday’s first witness, it is no longer a particular journalist leaking transcripts, or prosecutors Liat Ben-Ari and Yehudit Tirosh summarizing allegations in court.
Rather, it is hundreds of witnesses who will tell the tale – granular detail after granular detail.
The witnesses are expected to include former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo, former ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, former Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) director Yuval Diskin, former national security adviser Uzi Arad, World Jewish Congress president and onetime Netanyahu supporter Ron Lauder and tycoons Arnon Milchan, James Packer and Spencer Partridge.
Yeshua will testify about the Bezeq-Walla media bribery affair, Case 4000, which is paralleled by the Yediot Aharonot-Israel Hayom attempted media bribery affair, Case 2000.
In the abstract, Netanyahu’s lawyers Boaz Ben Zur and Amit Hadad had many strong defenses against the allegations that he helped Bezeq owner Shaul Elovitch get NIS 1 billion in value out of communications policies favoring him, in exchange for positive media coverage from Elovitch’s Walla media outlet.
When the battle is short media interviews and video clips on Facebook, it is enough for the prime minister and his lawyers to claim that there is no such thing as media bribery and that this is a politicized witch hunt.
Ashkelon mayor Itamar Shimoni was also put on trial for media bribery, so Netanyahu is not the first.
Even if Netanyahu had been the first, speaking about how unfair it is in the abstract is not the same as having to contend with the highly specific story that Yeshua will tell.
According to the amended indictment, from January 17 to 19, 2013 – days before the January 22, 2013, election – Netanyahu, through middleman Zeev Rubinstein, made no fewer than six demands for Walla owner Shaul Elovitch to influence media coverage positively for him and negatively relating to Naftali Bennett and the Bayit Yehudi Party.
Rubinstein was a longtime friend of Netanyahu and Elovitch and also had business connections to Elovitch.
All of the Netanyahu-Rubinstein-Elovitch plans led to the coverage the prime minister wanted, including negative coverage of Bennett’s wife allegedly eating at a nonkosher restaurant.
The one exception was a request slandering Bennett’s father, which Rubinstein apparently blocked.
Yeshua, and later other editors and reporters from Walla, are expected to give a detailed description of exactly how they went about fulfilling Netanyahu’s demands, which included numerous takedowns of articles which were good for his competitors.
They will say they knew that these changes went far beyond the typical access for coverage arrangements that other politicians regularly make with the media, which, for one, do not lead to reducing coverage for competitors.
On the critical days of January 21-22, 2013, Rubinstein made several Netanyahu demands directly through Yeshua himself.
These demands included: prominent coverage of Netanyahu being endorsed by then-Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, prominent posting of multiple videos of Netanyahu at the Western Wall and at his polling station, and taking down posted videos of Bennett and President Reuven Rivlin on Election Day.
Yeshua will again testify in detail about how exactly this went down and how obvious it was that this systematic manipulation of coverage on all ends was not part of the normal balance of access for coverage.
On January 30, 2014, the entire weekend magazine was removed from the Walla website in order to take down two negative op-eds relating to Netanyahu.
According to the indictment, all of this stemmed from a December 27, 2012, dinner of the prime minister and his wife, Sara, in which they hosted Elovitch and his wife, Iris.
It is one thing to say in the abstract that media bribery does not exist. But how will Netanyahu be able to cope with the volume of 315 varied, constant and systemic demands and control over Walla coverage of him and his political adversaries?
The former Walla CEO’s testimony to police helped break open aspects of Case 4000 in statements to police in 2018. This led police to former Netanyahu spokesman Nir Hefetz, and eventually to the prime minister himself.
Yeshua was an important cog, and his falling out with Elovitch in 2017 over the ongoing demands to please Netanyahu was critical.
But he was only one piece of many in the alleged Elovitch-Netanyahu media bribery scheme of positive coverage in exchange for the government catering its policies to benefit Bezeq, also owned by Elovitch.
After Yeshua, former Walla chief executive editor Aviram Elad, former news director Michal Klein and former news desk head Amit Eshel are expected to testify.
They are expected to fill in the picture of what happened within Walla under orders from the prime minister, Sara Netanyahu, Yair Netanyahu and Hefetz.
Elad is also expected to testify about attempts by the Netanyahu family to get him fired. This was due to occasions where he failed to cooperate with the scheme and allowed publication of negative stories related to the Submarine Affair.
Rubinstein was primarily responsible for passing on instructions in around 40 different incidents to Walla on behalf of Netanyahu from late 2013 until March 2014.
Yet, Hefetz, Sara Netanyahu and the prime minister himself got much more personally involved in passing on messages starting in March 2014.
There will be a debate about whether the prime minister himself can be tied directly to 150 incidents out of the 315 or to as few as a dozen, as Netanyahu’s lawyers have claimed.
But for each of the 150 times, the prosecution said, Netanyahu was directly tied to a request, as opposed to the full 315 incidents in which those in his circle made requests, the prosecution will bring one or more witnesses or text messages to prove his direct involvement.
This is clear from the fact that the prosecution left Netanyahu out of around 165 incidents, deciding that for those events, it lacked sufficient direct proof.
Either way, it will be hard for Netanyahu to argue that he was not involved in the broad project connecting Walla coverage and communications policy. He successfully claimed this in Case 3000, the Submarine Affair, but there, no one ever pointed a finger directly at him.
The Yes-Bezeq merger saga
By July 2014, Elovitch had pushed for Netanyahu to help provide government approval for the sale of Yes from Eurocom to Bezeq – all companies Elovitch had interests in, which put him in a conflict of interest.
Communications minister Avi Berger was conditioning the sale on Bezeq undertaking various market reforms which the ministry had demanded as well as maintaining various financial walls to limit dangers from Elovitch’s conflict.
Hefetz will testify that a few days before a major November 28, 2014, meeting between Netanyahu and Elovitch, he showed the prime minister proposals Elovitch gave Hefetz to gut Berger’s conditions.
Next, Hefetz will testify that Netanyahu requested that he carefully smuggle Elovitch into the meeting with him in a way that would cover up that they had met.
Both Hefetz and former Communications Ministry director-general turned state’s witness Shlomo Filber will testify that on December 9, 2014, Netanyahu appointed Eitan Tzafrir as chief of staff at the Communications Ministry to act as his long arm.
Subsequently, Netanyahu met with Berger and ordered him to carry out Elovitch’s wishes regarding the Bezeq-Yes merger, Berger will testify.
Berger and former Communications Ministry deputy director-general Haran Levaot will testify that they repeatedly stuck to their guns on the conditions for a Yes-Bezeq merger and ignored Tzafrir, who they will say was advocating problematic policies.
There will be multiple witnesses who will testify that this made Elovitch furious, which he asked Hefetz to pass on to the prime minister.
On May 17, 2015, as soon as Netanyahu formed a new government, he fired Berger.
He eventually appointed Shlomo Filber to carry out his orders to satisfy Elovitch so that the alleged media bribery for help with communications policy scheme could continue without further interference.
Filber was a longtime aide and was Netanyahu’s campaign manager from December 2014 to March 2015 with no background in communications policy.
In parallel, Tzafrir acted with then-Netanyahu chief of staff David Sharan to get professional approvals from the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Council relating to the Yes-Bezeq merger.
A big piece of Netanyahu’s defense has been that the apolitical officials at the council approved the merger.
However, council officials will testify that Sharan and Tzafrir learned from other council officials that they would proceed with approvals only if Netanyahu personally requested it.
On March 24, 2015, Netanyahu sent a letter requesting the approvals, and by April 16, 2015, top cable council officials will testify, they told their subordinates to move things along for the approvals of the merger.
In parallel, from January 2015 to August 2015, Netanyahu and his associates’ involvement in Walla exploded to 100 incidents, many witnesses will testify.
Again, it will be the granular detail that will undermine Netanyahu’s defenses.
Next, Filber will testify that in late May 2015 he was coached by Tzafrir about three main issues that Netanyahu wanted him to focus on.
One of them was moving forward with the Yes-Bezeq merger which Berger had blocked by conditioning approval on reforms.
The role of Shlomo Filber
Filber was confirmed for his post on June 7, 2015, and he will testify that shortly after that he was called to a special meeting with Netanyahu.
In August 2019, it was reported by Channel 12 that Filber’s testimony about this meeting with Netanyahu will include that it was clear to him that carrying out some of Netanyahu’s orders would be “a national disaster” in terms of the good of the public, but that he followed the orders anyway.
Incidentally, this conversation is what led to Filber becoming the star witness to bring down the prime minister.
In fact, it was Filber’s turning state’s witness in February 2018 that was the key moment that turned Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit against Netanyahu in the various criminal cases.
Filber will testify that during that June 2015 meeting with Netanyahu, there was a celebratory mood over Netanyahu’s election win. Netanyahu told Filber they would continue talking real business on the couch as he smoked a cigar.
Filber will testify that during this conversation, Netanyahu raised two primary issues for him in his new role as Communications Ministry director-general: approving the Bezeq-Yes merger and moderating price changes and competition against Bezeq.
“Don’t completely annul the [new] competition [against Bezeq], but see what can be done about the pricing [issue], maybe to moderate it or roll out [the reforms against Bezeq] over a longer period,” Netanyahu told Filber, according to Filber’s statements to police.
“I also understand that the Bezeq-Yes merger needs to be completed” to keep Elovitch happy, Netanyahu told Filber.
The police asked Filber, “What did you understand from this?”
“That there was the situation with Bezeq-Yes that it needed to be handled and completed,” Filber responded. “You don’t need to ask him by when – because I knew this was my job. I knew the situation already or parts of it, and anything I did not know I would learn it, and I understood that there was a kind of deadline. I understood that I was obligated to do it.”
Filber added that after his meeting with Netanyahu, Tzafrir sent him a message, asking, “Is there going to be an approval soon [for the merger]? [I’m right that] you’ll approve it? Find a way to approve it.”
In all of this, Netanyahu made clear to Filber that he wanted to help Elovitch.
Over June 13 and 14, 2015, Filber will testify, he met with Bezeq official Eli Kamir and then Elovitch to nail down the details about how to get the merger approved at a blitzkrieg pace by June 23, 2015.
June 23, 2015, was crucial for Elovitch, as without the merger approval he would have had major financing issues with various banks.
This all stemmed from the merger being approved by the relevant company boards involved on March 24, 2015, including their giving Elovitch 90 days to get Communications Ministry approval without the major conditions Berger had wanted.
Netanyahu has said the actions Filber undertook were done of his own accord, and that he was blaming the prime minister to save himself from prosecution.
“Not only were all the decisions on Bezeq and Yes approved by dozens of regulators and professionals who were not subordinate to Filber or Netanyahu, but it was under communications minister Netanyahu that reforms took place that made Elovitch and Bezeq lose billions of shekels, crashed Bezeq’s stock and saved citizens of Israel billions,” Netanyahu’s representatives have responded to the above allegations.
The truth is that Netanyahu’s lawyers will be able to attack Filber for years of public tweets and other statements he made defending all of the decisions he made which helped Elovitch.
For half a year, since July 2017, Filber had denied wrongdoing and remained loyal to the prime minister. Even in November 2017, when it was announced that Filber would be indicted, with no charges against Netanyahu, he did not crack.
In portions of Filber’s testimony made to police right before he turned against Netanyahu, leaked to Israel Hayom, Filber accused the police of “a million man race” to bring down Netanyahu by grabbing at anyone who was close to him.
Filber told the police that they would never have bothered with him if they were not trying to bring down the prime minister at all costs.
His message was that he and Netanyahu had done nothing wrong, and that they were trying to blackmail him into unjustifiably turning on Netanyahu.
In this narrative, the police used any and all means, even possibly illegal, to pressure confidants of Netanyahu to manufacture crimes that the prime minister did not commit.
But there is another narrative.
At the time that Filber turned state’s witness, it was leaked that what turned him was listening to recordings of Yeshua speaking to Elovitch about the scheme to skew coverage positively in the prime minister’s favor. This again shows the power of Yeshua’s testimony on Monday.
The Justice Ministry has never clarified why Filber was converted.
Was it because he learned for the first time how wide the media bribery scheme was, or did the recordings convince him that Netanyahu was going down anyway, and that all that loyalty would get him at this point was a jail cell next to his former boss?
Either way, Filber decided in February 2018 to turn state’s witness.
Filber told police right after turning state’s witness that it was as if a cloud had been lifted from him and that he could finally think straight and be true to his conscience for the first time in years.
He said he executed Netanyahu’s policy changes in favor of Elovitch which he knew were a “national disaster,” but that he went along, was caught up in the glory of his new title and power.
Filber, along with other communications officials, will testify that any reforms happened in spite of Netanyahu, and not because of him.
His turning state’s witness also led to Hefetz turning against Netanyahu.
The role of Nir Hefetz
However, Hefetz may be the prosecution’s weakest link.
He is known as fast and loose in the way he communicates.
Netanyahu’s defense lawyers have said they will have a field day questioning him with multiple inconsistent stories he told the police even once he was a state’s witness.
Also, part of what turned Hefetz against Netanyahu was implied threats from the police to expose a romantic connection he had with a third-party woman who was not his wife and whose name is under gag order.
Netanyahu’s defense lawyers have made it clear they will say this was highly improper coercion which should reduce the credibility of his testimony.
However, the prosecution has countered that it has text messages, other witnesses and other documents to confirm the broad parameters of Hefetz’s accusations against Netanyahu.
At a later point, Ambassador to the US and UN and senior Likud official Gilad Erdan is expected to testify in ways that will hurt Netanyahu’s narratives regarding communications policy and reforms.
Erdan had pressed for reforms while communications minister which Netanyahu later abandoned or reduced to assist Elovitch.
All of the above is the heart of Case 4000 and the greatest threat to Netanyahu.
The prosecution’s hope is that by the time it has called all of the Case 4000 witnesses, the judges will already be convinced that the prime minister is guilty of bribery.
Given Case 4000, the prosecution hopes it will be easier to convince the court that Netanyahu also attempted media bribery in Case 2000 at an earlier date.
This is the prosecution strategy because Case 2000, in which Netanyahu allegedly was a part of an attempted bribery scheme to help Yediot Aharonot at the expense of Israel Hayom in exchange for more positive coverage from Yediot, is damaged goods from the outset.
Mandelblit overruled then-state attorney Shai Nitzan and Netanyahu prosecution team lead lawyer Ben-Ari in seeking only an indictment for breach of trust as opposed to bribery.
Paradoxically, Mandelblit charged Yediot owner Arnon “Nuni” Mozes for attempting to bribe Netanyahu.
How do you charge someone with offering bribery, but not someone with receiving it?
It happens, but it is messy.
This is especially true when, unlike Case 4000, the Case 2000 deal never happened.
To date, courts still have extreme difficulty with defining what breach of trust is.
Is it engaging in actions that violate conflict of interest principles? hiding actions from authorities? failing to stop illegal actions?
Once Mandelblit dropped the bribery charge, he hinted to the court and the defense that the case has holes.
The prosecution’s case here largely rests on the shock value of the recordings it has of Netanyahu discussing the alleged media bribery scheme with Mozes.
On December 4, 2014, Netanyahu met with Mozes, who offered the prime minister positive media coverage and to attack Netanyahu rivals Naftali Bennett and Moshe Kahlon with “all of my efforts.”
This followed earlier similar meetings of Netanyahu and Mozes in 2008-2009 and 2013.
The prosecution will say that in the 2014 meeting, Netanyahu broke the law when he responded by describing to Mozes how he would pass the law to weaken Israel Hayom and empower Mozes.
Also, after the fifth of six meetings with Mozes, Netanyahu met with Israel Hayom owner Sheldon Adelson and asked for his help to carry out what he had promised to Mozes.
There is another weak point here for the prosecution.
Adelson’s statements to police were said to be a potential body blow for Netanyahu when they came out. A huge fan of Netanyahu, he had no incentive to lie to hurt the prime minister.
But Adelson died on January 11. This means he will never testify and will never be cross-examined.
In the trials of former prime minister Ehud Olmert, part of the defense’s effective attack which reduced large portions of jail time was the fact that a key witness for the prosecution, Shmuel Duchner, died before they could cross-examine him. Accordingly, the defense said that much of his testimony needed to be disqualified. It simply was unfair to convict Olmert on the basis of a witness who was never cross-examined.
The prosecution might be able to overcome this, but along with the many other above question marks, it may doom Case 2000 at trial, unless the court is already roped in against Netanyahu by Case 4000.
Case 1000, the Illegal Gifts Affair, does not have as many holes as Case 2000, which Mandelblit almost closed completely, but it has plenty of issues that make it borderline at trial.
Like Case 2000, the indictment is based on the vague and hard to define breach of trust charge.
Netanyahu allegedly received from billionaire Milchan NIS 267,254 in cigars, NIS 184,448 worth of champagne and NIS 10,900 in jewelry for Sara from 2011 to 2016.
He and his family also received another NIS 229,174 in champagne and cigars from Milchan associate, billionaire Packer, between 2014 and 2016.
The defense and the court will ask, if there was not enough quid pro quo on Netanyahu’s end for a bribery charge, like Nitzan and Ben-Ari wanted, why is there enough for a breach of trust charge?
Also, if billionaire Milchan was not charged for giving Netanyahu gifts, why should the prime minister be charged?
There are big questions about how Milchan will testify.
The prosecution may even bring his testimony much earlier, out of concern about reports that Netanyahu’s lawyer Ben Zur and the prime minister himself have continued to speak with Milchan.
While they claim that their contact has not related to the trial, the prosecution threatened Ben Zur with disciplinary charges for the problematic contact.
The big question will be whether the court sees all of the actions Netanyahu took for Milchan as separate and distinct acts, none of which came to fruition, or as part of a damning pattern.
Milchan’s assistant Hadas Kline will testify that Netanyahu knew about all of the allegedly illegal gifts, including gifts to Sara, which he has denied.
The gifts to Sara are critical because Sara allegedly harassed Milchan and Kline for them – which hurts the defense that they were given voluntarily.
According to the indictment, in 2010 Netanyahu summoned IDF Maj.-Gen. Eitan Dangot to provide Milchan with an IDF helicopter to go to Jordan for business.
Netanyahu’s lawyers have told The Jerusalem Post that this was for businessman Ratan Tata to advance deals with Jordan, not for Milchan.
But the prosecution will bring testimony that Netanyahu also met with Milchan’s accountant Zeev Feldman to ensure that the business plans were to benefit Milchan.
Filber will testify in Case 1000 as well.
He will testify that Netanyahu summoned him late at night as a middleman also to advance Milchan’s interests in investing in the Keshet channel.
Milchan made explicit requests of Netanyahu for assistance with such issues starting from 2009.
There is testimony from then-finance minister Yair Lapid about Netanyahu improperly trying to get him to give Milchan a massive tax exemption during two meetings in late 2013.
Further, the indictment said that Milchan and Kline appealed to Netanyahu repeatedly in December 2013 and in 2014 to help him get a long US visa extension.
Netanyahu initially got a short extension for Milchan through then-US ambassador Dan Shapiro.
When this short extension was not enough, Netanyahu obtained a longer extension by speaking to then-US secretary of state John Kerry.
Filber will testify that Netanyahu also told him in 2015 to help Milchan with regulatory issues relating to a potential merger between the Reshet and Keshet networks which would help Milchan.
How much will Milchan and former Netanyahu chief of staff turned state’s witness for Cases 1000 and 2000 Ari Harow try to help the prosecution, if at all, to nail Netanyahu?
Harow, who worked for Netanyahu in official capacities in 2008-2009 and 2014-2015 as well as in Likud fundraising in earlier years, has avoided pointing a finger directly at the prime minister the way Hefetz and Filber did, instead providing general details.
How will Sara, who has had trouble as a witness, hold up in court?
The number of questions and the lack of smoking gun evidence or a smoking gun witness as in Case 4000 are what make the result in this case so unclear.
THE TESTIMONY of Yeshua on Monday will start to clarify the picture of whether Netanyahu will be convicted, whether his career will end, and whether he will go to jail.
Case 2000 may fall apart, Case 1000 is a coin toss, and even if there are convictions in those cases, there may be no jail time.
But Case 4000, the story Yeshua will start telling, could put the prime minister behind bars for multiple years.
Starting on Monday, Netanyahu will not be able to control the narrative via Facebook, but will need to contend with hundreds of witnesses airing his dirty laundry in public.