Accused of coordinating a quid-pro-quo arrangement with major Israeli news site Walla News, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was nicknamed “Kim Jong Un” by staffers, and his on-demand orders for positive news coverage were referred to as “shish-kebabs,” according to the Walla News CEO who testified at Netanyahu’s corruption trial this week.
In court, the State of Israel has alleged that Netanyahu had desperately tried to take control of Walla News, the country’s most important news portal and its go-to site for political exposés and gossipy bombshells.
In the dramatic opening arguments of the evidentiary phase of Netanyahu’s trial—in which he stands accused of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust—Chief Prosecutor Liat Ben-Ari contended that the prime minister, Defendant Number One, had “abused the power of his office to grant illegal favors and further his personal interests” with major media outlets.
Specifically, the state claims that Netanyahu fired his minister of communications and the ministry’s director general to satisfy tycoons Iris and Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholders of Bezeq—Walla’s parent company and Israel’s largest communications company—who have also been charged with bribery.
Netanyahu was indicted on three counts last year, each relating to quid pro quos involving accusations that he received positive coverage or costly gifts in exchange for favors.
“The relationship between Netanyahu and the co-defendants became currency, something that could be traded,” Ben-Ari told the court. “This currency could distort a public servant’s judgment.”
With Walla’s disgraced leadership nearby, Netanyahu tilted his head to the left and stared directly at Ben-Ari from the far end of a courtroom, which was specially designed to conform to the security requirements of a sitting prime minister and COVID social distancing.
On the witness stand, former Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua described a management fracas in which he lost editor after editor after they grasped that they had become mere pawns in a grand plan engineered by Netanyahu, who denies all charges.
Yeshua said that before leaving the outlet, top Walla News figure Yinon Magal had asked Yeshua, “What is this disgrace we are doing here?”—and threatened to go directly to Netanyahu to demand he drop the constant stream of requests to tilt coverage.
A few tidbits emanated from the testimony, which has been hotly anticipated in Israel.
Inside the Walla newsroom, orders from the prime minister’s office were referred to as “shish-kebab,” Yeshua said, “because articles had to be prepared to order.”
The staff nicknamed Netanyahu “Kim,” an homage to North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un, or “the big guy.” Sara Netanyahu was called Ri Sol-ju, after Kim’s wife.
Yeshua said he faced daily abuse from Netanyahu emissaries, and detailed a pandemonium orchestrated by the Eloviches, who are accused of subverting their news site to gain regulatory relief for Bezeq from Netanyahu.
At one juncture, Yeshua said, Shaul Elovitch demanded he “take that article down immediately, because [Netanyahu] has to sign something for me this week.”
Israeli prosecutors claim that Bezeq and the Elovitches benefited to the tune of $500 million in exchange for providing Netanyahu the coverage he desired.
No recording devices were permitted in the courtroom, and Netanyahu didn’t hear the testimony. The Jerusalem’s District Court excused him after Ben-Ari’s opening statement.
Before he left, Chief Judge Rivka Feldman-Friedman told attendees, including the prime minister, that “you’ll get used to hearing my voice.” Yeshua is the first of more than 300 witnesses, and the trial is expected to last several years.
Netanyahu is fighting for his political life after a fourth inconclusive election, and he did not like what he heard in the first few days of the trial. In a fiery declaration streamed live from his official residence, he accused Israel’s police and judiciary of perpetrating a coup d’etat to oust him from power.
“Today I heard some elevated words about ‘abuse of power,’” he said, in a broadside aimed at Ben-Ari, who he singled out by name. “What hypocrisy! The entire process against me has been colored by the heavy-handed abuse of the powers of… the prosecution.”
Netanyahu claims that the investigations into his behavior and the legal prosecution constitute an illegitimate power grab—a position rejected by the court.
“It’s a witch hunt,” Netanyahu continued. “They didn’t investigate a crime, they didn’t look for any crime; they hunted a man, they hunted me.”
He went on: “This is how they try to overthrow a powerful right-wing prime minister… this is what an attempted coup looks like. What is happening is an effort to trample democracy, over and over again. They are attempting to annul the will of the electorate.”
Netanyahu rival Benny Gantz tweeted that Netanyahu’s address proved he was unfit to serve. “He is the one who is trying to carry out a coup d’etat. His attack against the Prosecution was intended for one purpose — to delegitimize the outcome of the trial and attempt to gain unlimited power. I call on all factions to unite and find a way to replace him.”
In a statement, justice ministry officials said Netanyahu’s attack against Ben-Ari, who has required police protection since Netanyahu and his son, Yair, began directing public attacks against her, came close to “witness intimidation.”
The Israeli electorate, meanwhile, appears unresponsive to Netanyahu’s will. In last month’s election, Netanyahu’s Likud failed to win a workable parliamentary majority, leading to the country’s fourth stalemate in two years.
Israeli law obliges the president to name a candidate to form a coalition government, but Netanyahu appears to have little chance of gaining a parliamentary majority in the 28-day-window granted to him.