PM: Eshel affair is under investigation

Netanyahu for the first time addresses the allegations that burea chief Natal Eshel harassed a female member of staff.

Nathan Eshel 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Nathan Eshel 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu related for the first time on Thursday to the harassment allegations leveled against his bureau chief Natan Eshel, saying the claims were being examined and there was a need to wait patiently before drawing conclusions.
Netanyahu made his comments at a weekly meeting in his office attended not only by Eshel, but also by the three other top officials who went to the attorney-general to complain about Eshel’s alleged behavior toward one of his subordinates. The senior officials were cabinet secretary Tzvi Hauser, military attaché Maj.- Gen. Yohanan Locker and communications director Yoaz Hendel.
Hauser’s and Hendel’s complaint to Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein, and the subsequent investigation that the Civil Service Committee launched, is what thrust the issue – and speculation about what goes on inside the Prime Minister’s Office – into the headlines.
Despite the obvious discomfort involved, one official in the Prime Minister’s Office said that Thursday’s meeting was held in a professional atmosphere.
He said the office was carrying on with the “normal conduct of business,” claiming that “positive working relationships have not been harmed,” but he acknowledged that this affair was very much on everyone’s mind.
“The country is facing serious challenges, and we need to deal with those,” Netanyahu said during the meeting, after urging patience while the matter was examined.
Following those remarks, the meeting turned to the agenda for Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting.
Though Eshel returned to work Thursday after a couple of days off, the woman he allegedly harassed did not.
Various media outlets on Thursday said she did not intend to file a complaint. The media quoted sources close to Eshel as saying he denied the allegations.
According to a Channel 1 report Thursday night, the female employee, 35, told Hendel of the alleged harassment late last year when they were on a business trip to the US. The woman complained that Eshel, her direct boss, intruded on her privacy by going through her cellular phone messages and emails, and harassed her by following her outside working hours.
Hendel returned to Israel and relayed the allegations to Hauser and Locker. They then sought advice from former attorney-general Menahem Mazuz, who advised them not to tell Netanyahu so he would not get involved in the issue; rather, he said, they should take the matter up directly with Weinstein.
Weinstein decided that the Civil Service Commission’s disciplinary division would conduct a preliminary investigation into the matter.
According to Channel 1, the disciplinary division on Thursday questioned one of those who went to Weinstein.
Officials in the Prime Minister’s Office insist that Netanyahu was not apprised of the situation beforehand.
On Thursday, pressure began to mount for the prime minister to suspend Eshel, one of his closest advisers. Watchdog group the Movement for Quality Government called on Netanyahu and Prime Minister’s Office director-general attorney Harel Locker to consider this move while the Civil Service Commission conducted its inquiry.
In a letter to Netanyahu and Locker, the Movement for Quality Government referred to Article 48 of the Civil Service Law, which gave the minister responsible for a worker the right to suspend that worker, in the case of a complaint filed against him on grounds of a severe breach of discipline, and in circumstances where a suspension would protect the Civil Service.
The Movement for Quality Government said that while media reports had not revealed details of the complaint against Eshel, they nevertheless painted a harsh picture, not least because the alleged complaints were filed by three senior Prime Minister’s Office officials. The prime minister should therefore consider suspending Eshel according to the powers granted by law, the letter concluded.
On Wednesday, civil rights group Ometz also appealed to Locker to suspend Eshel until the completion of the inquiry.
Late Wednesday night, the Justice Ministry issued a statement saying that the Civil Service Commission had not yet completed its initial inquiry into the allegations. The inquiry was being conducted in conjunction with Justice Ministry officials, who were being updated about it, a Justice Ministry spokesman said.
Also in its statement, the ministry stressed it would not provide any details of how the information regarding the suspicions had come to the attorney-general’s attention, but clarified that in this case, those who obtained the information “had been expected, within the capacity of their role, to transfer it to the appropriate officials in order for them to examine it and check its merits.”