PM said to reconsider nomination of IDF flack outed as former police agent

PM said to reconsider nomination of IDF flack outed as former police agent

Army chief holds meetings with top legal officers before speaking with Netanyahu following report Gil Messing secretly recorded suspects in Yisrael Beytenu graft case

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) shakes hands with incoming IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv on January 15, 2019. (Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) shakes hands with incoming IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv on January 15, 2019. (Flash90)

Army chief Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were scheduled to meet Thursday to discuss the appointment of Gil Messing as the next spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces, after it came to light this week that Messing had acted as a police agent in the Yisrael Beytenu corruption investigation in 2015.

Messing had not been a suspect in the investigation, nor is he accused of any wrongdoing. Indeed, the State’s Attorney’s Office said his assistance in the case “deserves appreciation”; however, his previously unknown role in the graft probe nevertheless appears to be threatening his already controversial appointment for the sensitive, high-profile position.

On Monday, the military announced that Messing — a 35-year-old with scant military experience — had been tapped to succeed Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis as spokesperson. The nomination was approved by Netanyahu, who also serves as defense minister.

Messing currently serves as head of global corporate communications for the technology company Check Point. He is due to take over as spokesman in the coming months, the army said.

Gil Messing, who was tapped to take over as IDF spokesperson, in an undated photograph. (Sigal Naftali Kessel/Israel Defense Forces)

Beyond his young age and relative lack of military experience, Messing, who is close to Kohavi, was already a controversial choice for the position as he has an indisputably political background, having worked as a spokesman for former foreign minister Tzipi Livni for several years. In general, the military looks to avoid even the appearance of partisanship.

The evening after his appointment was announced, the Haaretz news outlet revealed that in January 2015 Messing had secretly recorded his friend at the time, then-Yisrael Beytenu spokesman Ronen Moshe. Those tapes, in which Messing worked to get Moshe to admit to criminal acts, were later used in Moshe’s indictment and conviction.

On Wednesday, the Ynet news site reported that Messing had also surreptitiously recorded a number of other officials in the investigation against the Yisrael Beytenu party, including its head, then-foreign minister Avigdor Liberman, who is now seen as a potential candidate for defense minister and could thus become Messing’s superior.

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman presents his right-wing party’s candidates for the upcoming Knesset elections, during an event in Ashkelon on February 19, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

According to the Ynet report, it was not clear if Liberman was the target of Messing’s efforts on behalf of the police. In any case, no evidence of criminal wrongdoing by Liberman was found.

Messing, who was a director of communications at the Strauss food manufacturer at the time, became involved in the Yisrael Beytenu investigation as he was assisting a friend, Amnon Lieberman, who turned state’s witness after he was arrested as part of the probe. Messing maintains that he assisted the police out of a sense of civic duty.

In response to the growing number of reports on the issue, the State’s Attorney’s Office on Thursday released a statement to Messing’s lawyer, confirming that his client had never been suspected of committing a crime.

“His assistance to police was done at their request and under their guidance. Your client assisted law enforcement in a clearly defined and specific way, something that deserves appreciation. He acted as a law-abiding citizen,” the office said.

Responding specifically to the report that Messing had recorded Liberman, the State’s Attorney’s Office said that he was never asked by police to help in the investigation of “any elected official.”

The office added that it was working with police to declassify the information about Messing’s involvement at his request.

Kohavi had not known of Messing’s involvement in the investigation prior to the Haaretz report.

“Following the publication, the matter was reviewed by the relevant figures in law enforcement. This review found that Messing was never a suspect in the case and that there has never been a shred of a doubt about his conduct in this regard,” the IDF said.

New IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi receives his epaulets by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Yael, during a handover ceremony on January 15, 2019, at the Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

In addition to the initial check, Kohavi reportedly held a follow-up meeting with the IDF Military Advocate General, Maj. Gen. Sharon Afek, to further discuss any possible issues with Messing’s appointment in order to be better prepared to present the IDF’s stance during the meeting with Netanyahu on Thursday.

Attorneys for Moshe, the former Yisrael Beytenu spokesman, have requested access to Messing’s files and to other pieces of information connected to his previously unknown role in their client’s conviction.

The three-year investigation centered around Yisrael Beytenu, known as Case 242, is one of the most far-reaching public corruption cases in Israel’s history. The sprawling investigation revealed allegations of a widespread kickback scheme involving national and local politicians, as well as non-governmental organizations and private firms.

It became public in December 2014 with the arrest of 36 serving and former officials. The arrests came about four months before the 2015 election, which saw Yisrael Beytenu shrink to six seats, leading to accusations by party officials that it amounted to a political witch hunt.

The most prominent public official to be felled by the probe was former tourism minister and Yisrael Beytenu lawmaker Stas Misezhnikov, who began serving a 15-month prison term in October after he was convicted of attempting to secure employment for his romantic partner in 2012 by funding a student festival in Eilat using ministry funds.

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