Netanyahu backs US envoy’s handling of sexual misconduct claims against aide

PM says he’s sure Ron Dermer acted properly in choosing not to alert PMO to warning about David Keyes, notes the ambassador’s decision is being checked by Civil Service Commission

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) with Israel's Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, at the president's guest house, in Washington, DC, February 14, 2017. (Avi Ohayon/ GPO/ File)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) with Israel's Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, at the president's guest house, in Washington, DC, February 14, 2017. (Avi Ohayon/ GPO/ File)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday backed his US envoy’s handling of a report on allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior by the prime minister’s international media spokesman David Keyes.

Keyes went on open-ended leave of absence earlier this month, vowing to clear his name, after more than a dozen women complained of inappropriate behavior by him, including alleged instances of sexual assault and harassment, all but one of which related to the years when Keyes lived in the US before he went to work for Netanyahu in Jerusalem in 2016.

Israel’s Ambassador to the US was warned about Keyes’s alleged behavior, but did not convey the warning to the Prime Minister’s Office.

In his first public statement on the matter, Netanyahu told reporters: “I’m sure Ambassador Dermer acted entirely properly and appropriately.” He noted that “the matter is currently being probed by the Civil Service Commission, and we will let the investigation take its course.”

Sitting next to Dermer at a briefing for reporters at UN headquarters in New York, Netanyahu did not directly address the allegations against Keyes, who did not accompany the prime minister to New York.

The Civil Service Commission last week dropped an investigation into Keyes. It told The Times of Israel that Keyes may have acted improperly in the sole alleged incident that took place in Israel, but his behavior in that alleged incident did not constitute a criminal or disciplinary offense.

At the same time, the commission is continuing to look into the role of Dermer, who has acknowledged that he was warned about Keyes’s alleged misconduct, but failed to alert the relevant authorities.

On Tuesday, eve of the Yom Kippur, a female representative of the commission’s Department of Discipline briefly interviewed a woman who had accused Keyes of having made an “aggressive, sexual” advance weeks after he started working for Netanyahu in Israel.

“It was a very frustrating call. I told her that he [Keyes] abused his position of power,” the woman, who asked to remain unnamed, told The Times of Israel, adding that the call lasted about five minutes. “She said something along the lines of, ‘He’s not the first morally corrupt person in government and won’t be the last,'” she added.

The woman, a recent immigrant from North America in her 20s, is the only person so far who alleges improper behavior by Keyes after he had started working for Netanyahu. More than a dozen women have accused him of sexual misconduct in the years before he become the prime minister’s spokesperson in 2016 and was still living in New York.

The Civil Service Commission can only probe improper behavior if it occurred while the accused official was working for the state, spokesperson Arye Greenblatt said. Greenblatt added: “The woman agreed to give only her first name, and at the beginning of the conversation she made it clear that she was willing to speak only on condition that the contents of the conversation and her identity were not transferred to Keyes… The woman had no desire to file a complaint against Keyes.”

Greenblatt continued: “After describing her story, it was understood that the information she conveyed does not raise any suspicion of an offense on the part of Keyes, and that the incident had nothing to do with his work, and there was no work relations between the two at all.” Therefore, he went on, the commission’s representative told the complainant that she thinks that the Department of Discipline would not deal with the matter any further.

“There was no talk of corruption,” Greenblatt said, referring to the complainant’s claim that she was told Keyes was not the “first morally corrupt person in government and won’t be the last.” Rather, Greenblatt said, a statement was made saying that while Keyes’s conduct may have been inappropriate, “there is nothing in what she described that would reveal a criminal or disciplinary offense.”

David Keyes speaks to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he opens the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office, July 23, 2018. (Gali Tibbon/Pool via AP)

Earlier this month, The Times of Israel published in some detail the woman’s account of her June 2016 encounter with Keyes.

The New York Times reported that veteran US journalist Bret Stephens contacted Dermer in November 2016 and warned him that Keyes “posed a risk to women in Israeli government offices.”

Bret Stephens. (Jason Smith via JTA)

Dermer’s office acknowledged receiving Stephens’ message, but the ambassador decided not to pass it on to Netanyahu because the allegations were not criminal in nature.

“Information of the call was not conveyed to the PMO. If Stephens or anyone else had given the ambassador information on sexual assault or any other criminal act towards women perpetrated by anyone in the PMO — whether before or after that person was appointed — he would have notified the PMO immediately,” Dermer’s office said in a statement.

On September 12, The Times of Israel published an exposé regarding Keyes, citing 12 women who described a pattern of inappropriate behavior toward themselves and other women, including at least two accounts of what could be considered sexual assault.

Since then, four additional women have contacted The Times of Israel to complain about their encounters with Keyes. To date, four of the women who have complained about Keyes’s behavior have been named.

Keyes has denied any wrongdoing.

It was not clear what information precisely Stephens had provided Dermer. In Israel, sexual harassment, not only assault, is considered a crime.

Opposition MK Karine Elharrar on Sunday called on Netanyahu to dismiss Dermer for failing to report the sexual misconduct allegations. Elharrar, of the Yesh Atid party, told Netanyahu in a letter that Dermer was legally obligated to pass on the warnings of inappropriate behavior about the prime minister’s foreign media adviser.

Yesh Atid MK Karine Elharrar leads a State Control Committee meeting on March 08, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Echoing a complaint filed Saturday to the Civil Service Commission by Meretz MK Michal Rozin, Elharrar said that under Israel’s Law for the Prevention of Sexual Harassment, employers must “take appropriate action” against harassment or any knowledge thereof.

She said that even if Dermer did not believe the harassment allegations against Keyes constituted criminal offense, he was still obligated to report the claims according to the 1998 law.

In response, the Prime Minister’s Office said that it “wasn’t clear exactly what [Dermer] was told based on media reports,” but his handling of the affair would be investigated internally, according to the Ynet news site.

On September 11, Julia Salazar, who was subsequently elected to New York’s State Senate, accused Keyes of sexually assaulting her five years ago. Wall Street Journal reporter Shayndi Raice tweeted she too had a “terrible encounter” with Keyes before he became Netanyahu’s spokesman. She described him as a “predator” and someone who had “absolutely no conception of the word ‘no.'”

David Keyes, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesman for international media, and New York State Senate member Julia Salazar. Salazar has accused Keyes of sexual assault, an allegation Keyes denies. (Courtesy, Mary Altaffer/AP)

In the Times of Israel report published last week, a dozen women detailed varying allegations.

Keyes, 34, denied the allegations, saying all “are deeply misleading and many of them are categorically false.” He later said that he was taking a leave of absence amid the uproar to try to clear his name.

AP and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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