One of the key forces responsible for the assembly of the political "stink bomb" that blew up Monday night - when Kadima announced it is joining the government - was no other than Natan Eshel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's bureau chief who was expelled with disgrace just a few weeks ago after admitting to harassing a female employee.
A reminder: Eshel was removed from his job late February after the Civil Service Commission investigated claims that he had harassed R., his subordinate in the PM's bureau. The investigation ended when Eshel signed a plea bargain admitting that the relationship he had with his employee was "too close," that he took pictures of her without her consent and that he went through her e-mail. The plea bargain stated that Eshel's behavior was inappropriate and that he had invaded her privacy.
Sources close to Netanyahu say that even after Eshel was forced to resign his job at the end of February, he continued to act as Netanyahu's envoy in personal and political matters.
"Despite the embarrassing case, Netanyahu still sees Eshel as one of his closest and trusted men, and sends him on discreet, mostly political errands," said a source close to Netanyahu. "Even after Natan left the bureau, he didn't leave Netanyahu for one second. The only time the two were not in touch was the past couple of months, when Natan was overseas on vacation," he said.
In the past few weeks Eshel was still on a paid leave from the PM's office. The state continued to pay him, and he kept using the cellular phone provided by the office. Even though Ehsel avoided coming to the Netanyahu's office, he kept in touch – on the phone and in meetings in the Knesset and in Netanyahu's official residence.
In the past few weeks, Eshel was caught on camera several times walking alongside Netanyahu and his security detail in the Knesset, as if he had never left his side in the office.
In the weeks leading up to the decision to hold early elections, Netanyahu asked Eshel to handle the negotiations with some of the parties, especially with the ultra-Orthodox ones. While mourning the passing of Prime Minister's father, Ben-Zion Netanyahu, Eshel arrived at the house on Jerusalem's Haportzim Street number 4 for a few hours each day.
Over the course of the seven days of mourning, and increasingly in the past days, Ehsel conducted negotiations on Netanyahu's behalf the with opposition head Shaul Mofaz and with his political advisor Lior Horev. It is still unclear who initiated the negotiations and who offered who the political deal of a national unity government, but it is known that Ehsel is the one who led the secret negotiations and formulated the accord.
"The relationship between Netanyahu and Eshel go back a lot of years," said a source close to the Prime Minister. "Even though the continued work of someone who admitted of harassing a subordinate at Netanyahu's side makes people wonder, he is simply unwilling to give up on a loyal man like Eshel".
On Monday afternoon, during the Likud's meeting in the Knesset - and while the negotiations over a unity government were still a secret and were conducted under the radar of both politicians and the media - photographer Omer Meiron caught Netanyahu's Knesset affairs adviser Perach Lerner handing the phone to the prime minister. When Meiron enlarged the photo, he discovered an interesting name on the screen: "Natan Eshel New."
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