Alleged sex abuser’s former PR guru now working for Benny Gantz

Alleged sex abuser’s former PR guru now working for Benny Gantz

Israel Resilience party spokeswoman points out Ronen Tzur no longer works on Malka Leifer’s behalf; woman’s accusers ‘shocked’ to learn of prominent new position

Jacob Magid is the settlements correspondent for The Times of Israel.

In this February 27, 2018, file photo, Malka Leifer, center, is brought to a courtroom in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean, File)
In this February 27, 2018, file photo, Malka Leifer, center, is brought to a courtroom in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean, File)

Three victims of alleged sexual abuse by Malka Leifer expressed shock on Friday upon learning that the media strategist behind a campaign to block the extradition of their former high school principal is now working for Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience party.

Sisters Dassi Erlich, Ellie Sapper and Nicole Meyer said the candidate for prime minister needs to explain why he felt it was appropriate to hire Ronen Tzur as his strategic adviser despite a campaign Tzur drafted in November which sought to portray Leifer, who faces 74 charges of sex abuse back in Melbourne, Australia, simply as a “51-year-old grandmother.”

“We understand he works at a PR agency but the nature of his jobs leads to questions as to his ethics,” said Erlich, regarding Tzur, who also advised former president Moshe Katzav as he faced allegations of rape, for which he was convicted in 2010.

“How accountable are those that enable perpetrators to evade justice? When is a job just a job and when does it cross a moral line,” she added.

The campaign drafted by Tzur’s Rosenbaum Communication sought to recruit a state psychiatrist willing to testify in court that Leifer was not fit to stand trial, and target the medical experts who have so far rejected the notion that Leifer’s mental health should prevent her from extradition.

Shortly after the Yedioth Ahronoth daily exposed the project, Leifer’s defense team cut ties with Tzur, and his strategy was never put in place. The suspect’s attorney, Yehuda Freid, called the campaign “inappropriate” and asserted that Leifer’s family had nothing to do with its formation.

But Tzur defended the scheme, telling The Times of Israel on Friday that “it would have ensured a fair trial without the scandalous intervention of Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked,” who he claimed in the campaign draft held inappropriately close ties to Australian officials seeking to convict the alleged sex abuser.

For her part, Erlich said that the nature of Tzur’s work — on behalf of both Leifer and Katzav — “begs the question as to why Benny Gantz would want to hire him.”

Former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz delivers his first electoral speech in the coastal city of Tel Aviv on January 29, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Sapper went a step further, going after what she called the media strategist’s “blatant disregard in the protection of children from abuse.”

“If such decisions and behavior are condoned and this becomes an acceptable precedent, what type of community are we creating?” Sapper added, asserting that Gantz should not be taking advice from someone who had been willing to work on behalf of an alleged sexual predator.

Beyond highlighting that Tzur is no longer working for the Leifer family, a spokesman for the Israel Resilience party declined to comment any further on the matter.

Leifer, an Israeli citizen, fled Australia to Israel in 2008, days before allegations of sexual abuse against her surfaced, following a heads-up from officials at the Adass Israel school where she served as headmistress.

After authorities in Melbourne filed charges against her, Australia officially filed an extradition request in 2012. Two years later, Leifer was arrested in Israel but released to house arrest shortly thereafter. Judges deemed her mentally unfit to stand trial and eventually removed all restrictions against her, concluding that she was too ill to even leave her bed.

She was rearrested last February following a police undercover operation that cast doubts on her claims regarding her mental state, and has remained under custody since. The operation was launched after the Jewish Community Watch NGO hired private investigators who placed hidden cameras in the Emmanuel settlement where Leifer had been living, which showed the alleged sex abuser roaming around the ultra-Orthodox town without any apparent difficulty.

(From L-R) Dassi Erlich, Ellie Sapper and Nicole Meyer pose for a photo in Jerusalem on November 29, 2018. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

In August, a state psychiatric examination was submitted to the Jerusalem District Court deeming Leifer fit to continue facing an extradition hearing, but her defense team successfully argued that additional experts were required to reach a determination.

The court has allowed the case to drag out for nearly a year since she was rearrested and the 44th hearing on the matter isn’t slated to be held until March.

On Thursday, the case — which has been closely followed by Australians but has earned scant coverage in Hebrew media — saw what could be a major breakthrough.

After a months-long undercover operation, investigators from the police’s anti-corruption unit summoned Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman for questioning on suspicions that he had sought to obtain a falsified psychiatric report that would have prevented Leifer’s extradition on medical grounds.

A Justice Ministry official told The Times of Israel that police have acquired recordings of Litzman — the head of the United Torah Judaism party — and officials in his office speaking to health ministry employees and pressing them to act on Leifer’s behalf.

In this February 27, 2018, file photo, Malka Leifer, right, is brought to a courtroom in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean, File)

Leifer once taught at a school in Israel affiliated with the Gur Hasidic sect, of which Litzman is a member.

After Leifer’s initial arrest in 2014, Jerusalem District psychiatrist Jacob Charnes submitted two psychiatric opinions deeming her mentally incompetent, which led to her release. After Leifer was re-arrested in February 2018, Charnes agreed to sign off — after months of delay — on a new medical evaluation that refuted his initial conclusion. However, in an about-face at the latest extradition hearing last month, he testified against the determinations of several medical experts that found Leifer to be mentally competent and once again asserted that she was too sick to be sent back to Australia.

It was unclear whether Charnes was the medical expert that Litzman is alleged to have pressed to prevent Leifer’s extradition, but the district psychiatrist was appointed by the deputy health minister.

The deputy minister’s office released a statement saying that Litzman is “confident in his innocence” and would continue to cooperate in the investigation.

Upon a request from Leifer’s attorney, a Jerusalem District Court judge agreed to hold a bail hearing on Tuesday. Her lawyer, Fried, has argued that his client’s time in prison has led to the further deterioration of her mental state and that she should be released to house arrest as proceedings continue to draw out.

Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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