For three years Natan Eshel has been the strongman at the Prime Minister's Bureau: the prime minister's number 1 provider of gossip, the liaison man to the premier's wife, the implementer. And even though the man has a finger in every pie, he has managed to stay below the media radar.
His appearance does not jibe with the description above: a pleasant smile and a little crocheted skullcap. He is always ready with a sage jest or a tale from the glory days of the now defunct National Religious Party, where he made his way up.
Eshel's loyalty to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the prime minister's wife, Sara, is total. He has known them for nearly 20 years and has never betrayed their trust. A considerable part of his time as bureau chief is devoted to Sara Netanyahu's interests. It is he who briefs her on everything that moves at the bureau. He spends many long hours in her company at the official residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem.
Now Eshel is being accused of harassing a female staffer, with the accusations coming from three senior officials surrounding Netanyahu.
People who are closely familiar with what goes on at the bureau said this week that the only disagreement between Eshel and Sara Netanyahu has had to do with R., the junior official at the center of the affair. Sara did not like her and did not trust her. She did not want R. to join the official trips abroad. But Eshel insisted, the sole issue he was willing to fight Sara over. Some could see this as evidence of the claims against him, of his obsession with R.
Eshel's close associates paint a different picture: R. is a young woman who has experienced crises in her life. Eshel and his wife, Devora, took her into their hearts. The connection between Eshel and R. became like that of a father and daughter.
Officials at the bureau report that for over a year they have been witnessing improper behavior toward R. on Eshel's part. In private conversations he denies he rummaged through her e-mail, carried out surveillance, photographed her and searched through the text messages on her phone. As of yesterday, R. had not filed a complaint but in her conversations with female work colleagues and with at least one man in a senior position at the office, she has told quite a bit.
Four of the top people at the Prime Minister's Office saw and knew what was happening: cabinet secretary Zvi Hauser, military secretary Maj. Gen. Yohanan Locker, National Information Directorate head Yoaz Hendel and office director Gil Sheffer.
In the end, about two months ago, after consulting former Attorney General Menachem Mazuz, Hauser and Hendel went to Mazuz's successor, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein. Sheffer kept his distance.
People close to Eshel tried yesterday to claim that Locker did not complain, in order to give the affair the appearance of power struggles within the bureau. Locker was not present at the meeting with Weinstein but he did speak to him on the phone. They did not brief Netanyahu. On Tuesday morning, when reporter Sefi Ovadia broke the story on Army Radio, Netanyahu ordered his spokesmen to say it was nothing more than "cheap gossip."
A day later, the prime minister realized that if three of his top aides - with all probability after weighing things - decided to take a step heretofore unheard of in the Prime Minister's Office, one of two things must be true: Either it isn't gossip or those aides are not worthy of continuing to serve him.
Since Tuesday, Eshel has found himself alone, with the rest of the top officials surrounding the prime minister against him. Netanyahu will have to do something in order to restore sanity among his underlings. The problem is that once matters got to the clarifications stage, be they legal or disciplinary, the prime minister's hands are tied.
"If he only could, he'd bring Handel and Hauser into his bureau and hang them," a person close to the case said this week. "He doesn't care and certainly Sara doesn't care what Eshel has done. But the thought that they will make him part from Eshel, in unnatural circumstances, is definitely killing them. And they will never forgive the people they see as responsible for that."
Eshel spent the past two days vacationing with his family at the Dead Sea. On Sunday he is due back at the office, unless he decides to play wait and see.
As though Netanyahu didn't have enough problems at the bureau, he also has political and coalition problems speeding toward him, mainly between the ultra-Orthdox and secular wings. One headache is the renewal of the Tal Law - which allows ultra-Orthodox exemptions from army service. Another headache is the issue of the new criteria for housing, which have entangled Netanyahu in contradictory promises - to Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov of Yisrael Beiteinu, on the one hand, and to Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Housing and Construction Minister Ariel Atias of Shas, on the other.
And he also has another headache, connected to the illegal outpost at Migron, which is known in the Likud as "Migraine."
Next week, it seems the inhabitants of the outpost will agree to the compromise put together by Minister Benny Begin. They will move to another hill a kilometer and half to the south of where they are now and build their permanent homes there.
The state will build all the infrastructures and public buildings for them, because when it comes to the territories, there is no dearth of money.
This compromise irritates the Jewish Leadership faction in Likud,which is headed by Moshe Feiglin, who is vying against Netanyahu for the party leadership. It also irritates the heads of the local councils in the West Bank who are members of Likud, as well as organizations like the National Headquarters group in the party, which has published paid announcements in newspapers exhorting party members not to vote for Netanyahu in the party primaries this coming Tuesday.
On January 31, it's safe to say Netanyahu will be re-elected with a sweeping majority. In the previous primaries, in 2008, when the Likud was in the opposition, Feiglin won 24 percent of the vote. MK Danny Danon won about 3.5 percent. This time only Netanyahu and Feiglin are in the running.
However, the prime minister has reason to be worried. The Netanyahu of 2012 is running with the baggage of the Bar-Ilan speech, in which he recognized the principle of two states for two people, and the building freeze in the territories. He has also been conducting a lengthy love affair with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, which is driving the settlers crazy. Ostensibly, the settlers have more reasons now to express anger at Netanyahu, be that by voting for Feiglin or by casting blank protest ballots.
The prime minister is continuing to rush around the country to meetings that are closed to the media in order to spur party members to come and vote. "They," Netanyahu tells his activists, "will come to the polls in large percentages. Why? Because they always come, because they have the spirit of battle. Whereas our people will say: Bibi will be elected in any case, so why leave the house?"
'I can vote for you, but you can't vote for me'
On Sunday, the daily business newspaper Calcalist reported that Netanyahu wants to promote the candidacy of Prof. Stanley Fischer, the Governor of the Bank of Israel, as the next president of the State of Israel.
According to the report, the Prime Minister's Bureau "refused to comment on the issue." It did not issue a denial. In the well-known code of journalism, such reports are known as trial balloons. Usually these balloons burst in the face of the source that released them. Not those they report on.
On Sunday morning the phone rang at the bureau of Knesset Speaker Rueven Rivlin (Likud ). It was Natan Eshel on the line. Rivlin was on a visit to Ireland and Britain. "Tell him," said Eshel to Knesset director general Dan Landau, "that it didn't come from us."
At about the same time Rivlin, a longtime aspirant to the position of president, was getting phone calls from supporters back in Israel who were wondering why Netanyahu would be pushing the candidacy of another man.
"I'm confused," Rivlin told them. "I keep hearing about the prime minister supporting different candidates. One time it's Moshe Kahlon, another time it's [former Likud minister] David Levy, and now it's Fischer. I no longer know whom to support."
Fischer took advantage of a public speech he gave at an economics event and coldly made it clear that he does not see himself as a candidate for the presidency. (The single term of the current president, Shimon Peres, is scheduled to end in July 2014. )
On Tuesday the phone rang at Rivlin's bureau. It was Fischer on the line. Rivlin took the call gladly. According to one of the sides, this is how it went: Fischer: "Ruby, believe me, that story doesn't come from me."
Rivlin: "That's a pity, Stan. I thought that at long last I'd have someone to vote for."
Fischer: "Thanks, but I'm not interested."
Rivlin: "Could it be that at the Bank of Israel there are people who want to get rid of you and it was they who brought up your name?"
Fischer answered whatever he answered and added: "If I could, I would vote for you."
Rivlin: "I could vote for you but you can't vote for me. You're not a Knesset member."
Fischer: "Despite my strong desire to vote for you, I will never become a Knesset member."
Rivlin: "Maybe we'll change the law and say that the body for choosing the president, which is the [Knesset] plenum, will also be the governor of the Bank of Israel."
Fischer: "You're liable to regret that. You don't know who is going to be the governor after me."
Rivlin: "So we'll change the law again. Here in the Knesset we change the law according to the man."
Obsessed with the mufti
Last week, the Palestinian mufti of Jerusalem, Muhammad Hussein, gave a speech and said the Muslims must kill Jews, until the resurrection of the dead. Netanyahu ordered his envoy Isaac Molho, who has been conducting talks with the Palestinians in Jordan, to submit a vehement protest.
On Sunday morning, Netanyahu opened the cabinet meeting with a condemnation of the mufti and called upon the attorney general to open an investigation. The next day, at the meeting of the Likud faction in the Knesset, he vehemently condemned the mufti's words and compared him to one of his predecessors, Haj Amin al Husseini, Hitler's friend who encouraged the destruction of the Jews.
Netanyahu also criticized the heads of the Palestinian Authority, who "allowed" the broadcast of this incitement on their official television network, calling it a sign of a lack of a real desire for peace. The following day, in a speech in the Knesset plenum ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, he again condemned the remarks and compared them to what Haj Amin al Husseini said at the start of the 1940s. The mufti could not have dreamed of such PR.
The Israel of 2012 is a regional power with the strongest army in the Middle East. Netanyahu is depicting us as having gone back to being persecuted, defenseless Jews whose fate depends on what comes out of the mouth of one mufti or another.
And what does Netanyahu want from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas? About a year and a half ago, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef declared "[Abbas] and all his villains can depart from this world. May the Holy One, blessed be He, smite them with the plague." Netanyahu did not ask Weinstein to open an investigation.
Two months after those things were said, the prime minister made a pilgrimage to the Shas leader and got affectionate slaps from him. Does this mean Netanyahu does not want peace?
He is pining for peace. But he is barricaded into some imaginary ghetto, as though at any moment the enemy will knock on the door and drag him and Sara into the unknown. Or maybe he's just a cynic.
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