Netanyahu aides fined for violating quarantine

Social media adviser Topaz Luk, foreign policy adviser Reuven Azar ordered to pay NIS 5,000 each; Luk sues ex-PM Barak, journalists for claims he staged footage at anti-PM rallies

Topaz Luk, social media adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, arrives with the premier at the Knesset, September 15, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Topaz Luk, social media adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, arrives with the premier at the Knesset, September 15, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Two of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s aides were fined Tuesday for breaking quarantine imposed on them after flying to the US with the premier last week.

The prime minister’s social media adviser Topaz Luk, and Reuven Azar, his foreign policy adviser and deputy head of the National Security Council, were ordered to pay NIS 5,000 ($1,455) after they were filmed outdoors when they were meant to be self-isolating.

Meanwhile, Luk and Netanyahu family spokesperson Ofer Golan filed a libel suit against former prime minister Ehud Barak along with journalists Uri Misgav and Ravit Naor over claims made by the three that the aides staged footage and planted demonstrators in the rallies against the premier to create a provocation.

Golan and Luk are seeking NIS 420,000 ($122,00) in damages. The two were filmed at Saturday night’s demonstration holding cameras, with Luk in violation of quarantine.

On Monday, Netanyahu resisted calls to fire or punish the two senior aides and claimed the public attention they have been receiving is politically motivated.

Senior adviser to the prime minister and deputy head of the national security council Reuven Azar. (Screengrab: YouTube)

Speaking at a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Netanyahu reportedly bristled at the harsh criticism directed at Luk and Azar, who was seen at a supermarket in the Jerusalem suburb of Mevaseret Zion on Friday.

“Now, suddenly, everyone wakes up in the case of one man,” he said during a cabinet meeting, according to Channel 12 news.

“Everyone who breaks quarantine should pay a fine, but there mustn’t be selective enforcement. Jews, Arabs, left, right — I think everyone should follow the Health Ministry instructions and they should be kept and enforced equally,” he reportedly said.

Luk and Azar were part of the Israeli delegation that traveled to Washington last week to sign the normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. While Israelis returning from countries with high COVID-19 infection rates must quarantine for 14 days, members of the delegation only had to self-isolate for five days, despite reportedly breaking agreed-upon health guidelines during the trip.

The delegation returned to Israel on Wednesday, and was supposed to be in quarantine until Monday, after taking coronavirus tests Sunday night.

Topaz Luk, social media adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, arrives with the premier at the Knesset, September 15, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Photos on social media showed Luk filming several maskless protesters as he stood at the demonstration. Video filmed by a protester showed Luk and Golan walking away from the demonstration near the Prime Minister’s Residence on Sunday night. The weekly protests, normally held Saturday night, drew some 5,000 people Sunday, despite a new national lockdown that began Friday.

One of the groups leading the ongoing anti-Netanyahu protests accused Luk and Golan of coming to the rally to film an alleged group of coronavirus deniers as part of efforts to discredit the demonstrations.

Channel 12 quoted Luk as telling “close associates”: “The instructions I received changed several times, but I should have been more careful. I am sorry that I have become a tool for attacks on the prime minister, and in any case I will pay the fine on my own initiative.”

Netanyahu and his supporters have claimed the protests are a major vector of infections, though health officials have said no new infections have been traced back to the rallies so far.

“Topaz Luk arrived to perform a coronavirus test in Jerusalem in accordance with the instructions he received from the Health Ministry, upon his return from the delegation to Washington and afterwards returned to his home,” Netanyahu’s Likud party said in a statement.

It also said Golan was not required to be in quarantine, but did not explain why he was with Luk and did not directly address the fact that he had been filming the protest.

Despite Likud’s assertion that Luk was going to take a COVID-19 test, the Kan public broadcaster said he was tested at 9:30 p.m., an hour before he was seen with a camera at the protest. Media outlets also noted the testing site was at the Prime Minister’s Office, about a mile (1.6 kilometers) from Paris Square.

Following separate reports of Azar’s breach of quarantine, Netanyahu’s office said a “clarification” talk was held with the senior aide. It asserted he was not updated about the Health Ministry’s determination that the premier and his aides were required to quarantine, after the Prime Minister’s Office said they would instead begin adhering to the countrywide lockdown rules before they took effect on Friday.

“Azar was out on notice by his superiors so such incidents are not repeated,” the PMO said in a statement.

While in Washington, Azar also violated the coronavirus regulations of the Prime Minister’s Office by leaving the hotel where the Israeli delegation was staying in Washington. The delegation was under strict rules that included maintaining small groups and not leaving the premises of the hotel.

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