Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s defense lawyers on Tuesday cross-examined a key witness in his corruption trial for a second day, seeking to poke holes in prosecutors’ accusation that the ex-premier received particularly beneficial coverage from a leading news site as part of an alleged quid pro quo.
The trial resumed Monday following a three-month pause as prosecutors asked for more time to gather all relevant materials demanded by the defense from the phone of Ilan Yeshua, former CEO of the Walla news site.
Yeshua, the first witness to testify in the trial, is a top witness in Case 4000, which addresses allegations that Netanyahu approved regulatory decisions that financially benefited the controlling shareholder of Bezeq telecom, Shaul Elovitch, in exchange for positive coverage from the Bezeq-owned Walla.
The defense has been trying to show that, contrary to what Yeshua has been saying in court, orders to rewrite certain news stories or give them greater or less visibility on the site were commonplace not only in the case of Netanyahu but also came from other politicians, businessmen and companies.
Like in most past hearings, Netanyahu was not present in the courtroom Tuesday, having been granted an exemption.
During Tuesday’s hearing, Netanyahu’s attorneys questioned Yeshua over 2016 correspondence concerning Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman, who was the defense minister at the time.
“[Elovitch] gave me an instruction not to harm the Russian,” Yeshua told the court in reference to Liberman, who was born in Soviet Moldova.
As Yeshua testified, Elovitch called out, “Liar, I never gave you an order,” before being removed from the courtroom.
The defense highlighted text messages between Yeshua and Liberman’s media adviser, Tzachi Moshe, from July 2016 after Walla published an article with the headline “Trying to get the defense minister drunk: The Facebook photo that embarrassed Liberman.”
The story included an image of Liberman posing for a photo with two women at a party that was posted on Facebook hours after a deadly terror attack in the West Bank. The caption accompanying the photo said they were hoping to make him inebriated and that “it’s not that clear” what he does as defense minister.
“When you see something like this or when they reach out to you for comment, update me immediately,” Yeshua wrote to Moshe.
Yeshua later sent a message to Michal Klein, who was then head of Walla’s news desk, decrying the article as “hypocritical, odd and unfair” and telling her to remove it from the homepage.
“The defense minister is a public figure… but I’ll take it down,” she responded.
Netanyahu’s attorney Boaz Ben Tzur also presented another message Yeshua sent to Klein telling her to take down an article titled “Liberman folds: The agreement with Iran is not like the Munich agreement.”
Yeshua later told the court he was also asked by Elovitch “to go easy” on then-Likud minister Silvan Shalom as he faced sexual misconduct allegations.
“Be strong and keep calm. I will help as best as I can,” Yeshua wrote to Shalom in a message shown to the court.
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.
The trial is later expected to focus on two other cases against the former premier. 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.
A reported seat on the board
According to a report Tuesday in the Haaretz daily, Netanyahu, who is now opposition leader, was recently offered a spot on the board of the Oracle tech company by its owner, Jewish-American billionaire Larry Ellison, a witness in the former premier’s trial.
Sources close to Ellison and Netanyahu said they believed the offer would include an annual salary worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Netanyahu denied receiving such an offer, while Ellison declined to comment in a statement on his behalf from Oracle.
Members of Knesset are barred from drawing a salary from other sources and Netanyahu would have to resign as an MK to take the seat on Oracle’s board.
Unnamed sources in the political system who were quoted in the report said they believed the chances were slim that Netanyahu would step down as an MK to join Oracle’s board.
The report came shortly after Netanyahu vacationed on a private Hawaiian island owned almost wholly by Ellison.
Ellison is one of several hundred prosecution witnesses in Netanyahu’s corruption trial. His name reportedly came up in two of the cases and a report last year said he lobbied and convinced Israeli mogul Arnon Milchan to drop his lawyer so Netanyahu could hire him.
Another witness in the cases against Netanyahu, Haim Geron, was killed in a plane crash in Greece on Monday evening.
Netanyahu, who is accused of receiving illicit gifts from wealthy benefactors, insisted he paid for his vacation. He also said there was no legal impediment to meeting with witnesses in his trial.