In transcripts, media outlet CEO takes orders on news coverage from PM spokesman

In transcripts, media outlet CEO takes orders on news coverage from PM spokesman

Chats show Walla head Ilan Yeshua consulting with Nir Hefetz, now a state’s witness, on whether to publish content, asking for okay on hiring political correspondent

Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua. (YouTube screenshot)
Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua. (YouTube screenshot)

Newly leaked correspondence from the phone of a state’s witness in a corruption case into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shows Nir Hefetz, the former spokesperson for the prime minister’s family, giving orders to the then-CEO of the Walla news site dictating its media coverage, with the latter asking for approval on journalist hires.

The conversations between Hefetz and Walla’s Ilan Yeshua were reported Wednesday night by Channel 13, hours after Justice Minister Amir Ohana broke a court-imposed gag order to claim that police pressured Hefetz to turn state’s witness by threatening to disclose an alleged extramarital affair. Hefetz denied the allegation, while Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said Ohana was misrepresenting the events.

Hefetz is a former Netanyahu spokesman and confidant and a witness in Case 4000 — the most severe of the cases facing the premier — in which Netanyahu is suspected of pushing regulatory decisions benefiting the controlling shareholder of the Bezeq telecommunications group, Shaul Elovitch, in return for ongoing positive news coverage from the Elovitch-owned Walla news site.

Hefetz turned state’s witness after being arrested and questioned over a two-week period, and is believed to have provided prosecutors with key information about the period when he served as an informal interlocutor between Netanyahu and Elovitch.

Nir Hefetz appears in a Tel Aviv court on February 22, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ)

In the conversations between Hefetz and Walla’s Yeshua from 2015, the CEO of the site is quoted as asking Netanyahu’s spokesperson whether to publish transcripts relating to Sara Netanyahu’s criminal cases, which had been aired earlier in the day by Channel 12.

“We didn’t publish anything on the transcripts. What do you prefer? That we not publish anything? Or that we publish the transcripts with the denial displayed prominently?” writes Yeshua.

Hefetz tells him to wait to frame the story around the prime minister’s upcoming complaint letter to the attorney general about leaks. Later, when the report goes up, Hefetz takes issue with the headline.

“Fixed and I’ve also switched to a better photo,” replies Yeshua. “If there are any other problems, speak to me directly.”

Yeshua, according to Channel 13, also sought the prime minister family’s approval to hire reporter Almog Boker as the site’s political correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) celebrating his 64th birthday with his wife Sara and their son Yair, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem. October 20, 2013. (GPO/Flash90)

“Does that mean there is no opposition to our taking him? It would be a shame for me to miss him. He’s a professional,” writes Yeshua, pressing Hefetz on several occasions to inquire about the Netanyahus’ opinion on the hire.

“Try to okay the guy I told you about,” he later writes, referring to Almog. “It’s important to me.”

Hefetz replies: “Would Erez Tadmor [founder of the right-wing Im Tirzu movement] be suitable as a political correspondent?”

“I didn’t ask for a name,” says Yeshua. “I asked if there was a problem with Boker.”

“Do me a favor, leave me out of this,” says Hefetz, saying the question would backfire “because they immediately come up with an alternative. They’re no pushovers.”

Boker was not eventually hired for the post.

In another instance, Hefetz asks Yeshua to remove an item that displeases Netanyahu’s son Yair.

“You know I help any way I can,” Yeshua responds, “but what you’ve just asked for will cause immediate and colossal damage.”

Hefetz responds: “I didn’t ask for anything. I typed what was dictated to me.”

According to the television report, Yeshua also sent Hefetz a Walla interview with Netanyahu to edit before its publication — without the knowledge of the writer and editor. Ahead of the 2015 election, correspondence between the two showed Yeshua complying with Hefetz’s orders on whether to send push notifications and livestream a right-wing rally.

A composite image of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Bezeq controlling shareholder Shaul Elovitch. (Flash90; Ohad Zwigenberg/POOL)

On Election Day in March 2015, Hefetz writes: “I showed Bibi [Netanyahu] the main headline. He’s thrilled.”

“The video you asked for is the main headline,” writes Yeshua, referring to Netanyahu’s now infamous “the Arabs are voting in droves” clip, for which the prime minister later apologized.

Hefetz also reportedly encouraged Yeshua to erase the correspondence, apparently realizing it could backfire.

“Obviously,” replies Yeshua to such a message from Hefetz. “I erase it every day.”

Channel 12 news on Monday shared other transcripts of statements Hefetz gave, in which he spoke of trouble accurately remembering details of the case, changed his testimony on several occasions and mentioned meetings that apparently did not take place.

That television report also alluded to pressure tactics allegedly employed by police to force Hefetz to turn on his former boss. On Tuesday, Mandelblit vowed to look into possible wrongdoing by investigators. The head of the Israel Bar Association also called for an immediate and open inquiry into the accusations.

On Friday, both channels 12 and 13 reported that Mandelblit would be holding discussions this week with the aim of reaching a decision by the end of November on whether to file charges against Netanyahu in the graft probes.

In a draft charge sheet issued in February, Mandelblit outlined charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust against the premier in Case 4000, and fraud and breach of trust in two other cases, dubbed by police Case 1000 and Case 2000.

Netanyahu, who denies any wrongdoing, has repeatedly claimed that he is the victim of a witch hunt by the media, the left, police and the state prosecution designed to oust him from power.

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