Netanyahu trial to resume with fresh evidence from Walla CEO’s messages

The trial of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is to resume Monday after a three-month break with the continued cross-examination of former Walla website CEO Ilan Yeshua.

Netanyahu, now leader of the opposition, will not be present at the hearing at the Jerusalem District Court, having been granted an exemption.

Yeshua is the first witness to give testimony in Netanyahu’s trial. He is a top witness in Case 4000, in which Netanyahu is alleged to have abused his powers when he served as both premier and communications minister from 2014 to 2017.

Netanyahu’s defense attorneys will enter the courtroom Monday armed with fresh evidence — drawn from personal communications between Yeshua and other figures — that they hope will show that Netanyahu was not given preferential coverage by the news website.

Netanyahu is accused of using his position in order to illicitly benefit the business interests of Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of the telecom company Bezeq. In exchange, Elovitch allegedly provided Netanyahu and his family with positive coverage on the Elovitch-owned Walla news website, including allowing the then-prime minister’s associates and family members to dictate editorial content and policy on a regular basis.

The defense has been trying to show that, contrary to what Yeshua has been saying in court, orders to give certain stories greater or less visibility were commonplace not only from Netanyahu but also from other politicians, businessmen and companies.

To back up their case, they will present content from some 25,000 lines of text messages and hundreds of personal emails between Yeshua and others. The prosecution had been ordered to add the communications to the case material during the previous hearings of the trial in June.

There are currently another seven hearings scheduled for Yeshua’s testimony.

The three-month break in the trial came after prosecutors asked for more time to provide all the necessary materials, as the defense attorneys argued they were not given the texts from all relevant conversations on Yeshua’s phone.

Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen as he arrives for a court hearing at the District Court in Jerusalem on April 5, 2021. (Oren Ben Hakoon/POOL)

New evidence indicates that during the 2013 and 2015 election campaigns, ties were formed between Yeshua and several politicians and senior figures who were responsible for advertising budgets of various political parties on the website, the Haaretz newspaper reported Monday. In return for funding, Walla apparently provided positive reporting about the political parties, according to the report.

However, former deputy attorney general for criminal matters Yehoshua Reznik told Haaretz there is a significant difference between the two circumstances.

“If the prosecution’s thesis is correct, according to which Netanyahu received positive coverage in exchange for regulatory approvals within his authority, then this is a situation of bribery,” Reznik said. “But positive coverage for a party’s campaigner or his friends to entice them to transfer advertising budgets to a site like Walla is not like that.”

Among the communication material in the fresh evidence are messages between Yeshua and senior Likud officials discussing the advertising for the Likud party campaign in 2013, according to Haaretz. Significantly, the communications were before December 27, 2012, the date when Netanyahu and his wife Sarah met with Elovitch couple and, according to prosecutors, agreed on the alleged quid pro quo deal they say lies at the heart of the bribery charges.

However, messages sent by Yeshua show he had already agreed to advertise for the Likud campaign, in one message writing to Doron Tal, head of digital media in the Likud campaign, that “you will get whatever you want to bolster the campaign process,” Haaretz reported.

In his previous testimony, Yeshua has described how Netanyahu’s wife Sara, their son Yair, and aides to the former premier would systematically interfere in the running of Walla.

Netanyahu faces charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in the case, while Elovitch and his wife, Iris, have been charged with bribery. All three defendants deny wrongdoing.

As the trial resumes, hearings will held twice a week on Mondays and Tuesdays.

The trial is later expected to focus on two other cases against the former Israeli leader. One case involves Netanyahu allegedly receiving illicit gifts from billionaire benefactors. Another case involves a separate alleged quid pro quo deal with the publisher of the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, Arnon Mozes, for positive media coverage in exchange for legislation weakening a rival newspaper.

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