Two weeks before he flies to the US for talks with President Barack Obama on the Iran nuclear crisis and other major diplomatic issues, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under heavy fire at home for his handling of a harassment scandal in his bureau. The scandal, and fallout, has prompted a series of departures of key aides.
On Sunday, Netanyahu’s bureau chief, Natan Eshel, was forced to announce he would step down in the wake of allegations that he harassed a colleague. Now two of the three senior aides to the prime minister who alerted the authorities to the scandal are leaving too, and the third may not stay on for much longer.
The prime minister’s top spokesman, Yoaz Hendel, is resigning just six months after he took the job, it was confirmed on Wednesday. Netanyahu’s military secretary, Yohanan Locker, is leaving for a position in the Israel Defense Forces, although his departure was previously scheduled. A third whistle-blower, cabinet secretary Zvi Hauser, may be on the way out too, Israel’s Channel 2 news indicated on Wednesday evening.
The prime minister had upbraided the trio for failing to inform him about the allegations relating to Eshel; instead, they turned to the government’s top legal officer, Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein, to investigate the case.
At a press conference on Wednesday, Netanyahu defended his handling of the matter, saying it was “not appropriate” that the trio of whistle-blowers had not informed him about their suspicions that Eshel harassed a female colleague in the office. “If there was a suspicion of harassment,” said Netanyahu, “they should have turned to the head of the hierarchy … in this case, the prime minister.”
Instead, he complained, he was kept in the dark for weeks, and had to read about the scandal in the newspapers.
Eshel has accepted a plea bargain acknowledging he harassed a female employee by photographing her, reading her private e-mails and other “unbefitting and unacceptable” conduct. He is to step aside by the end of the month and will be banned from public service.
Netanyahu met on Wednesday with the female staffer — known to the public by the initial “R” — for the first time since the scandal broke in mid-January. He said he understood how difficult recent weeks must have been for her, asked her to be strong, and said he hoped that in time the matter would die down, according to a Maariv report. R. reportedly thanked him for these sentiments.
Israeli TV commentator Amnon Abramovich suggested Wednesday night that the trio had preferred not to directly involve Netanyahu, because they wanted him to shield him from the scandal or feared that he might be tempted to try to hush it up.
Amid violence in neighboring Syria, concerns over Iran’s nuclear program, and an unfolding political drama over military exemptions for ultra-Orthodox Israeli males, it was nonetheless the revolving-door departures of the prime minister’s top aides that opened Wednesday night’s main TV news broadcasts.
Further embarrassing the prime minister, the TV news shows have been playing a video clip filmed at Sunday’s cabinet meeting, in which Netanyahu repeatedly scolds cabinet secretary Hauser, sitting to his left, for failing even to ensure that the door to the ministerial meeting room is kept securely closed. “Just get a lock fitted,” the prime minister snaps at the discomfited aide.
As things stand, Channel 2 reported, Hauser is still scheduled to fly to the US for the Obama meet in two weeks’ time. R. will not be traveling, even though she would normally be part of the prime ministerial delegation on such trips.
AP contributed to this report.