Harassment allegations against PM aide Eshel: 'This is just the tip of the iceberg,' bureau sources say
The Civil Service Commission is currently investigating whether Eshel harassed a female bureau employee named R.; Netanyahu tries to signal 'business as usual.'
The harassment allegations against bureau chief Natan Eshel that have been published in the media so far are merely "the tip of the iceberg," sources in the prime minister's bureau said on Thursday.
The Civil Service Commission is currently investigating whether Eshel harassed a female bureau employee named R. But despite the inquiry, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to broadcast a "business as usual" message on Thursday by convening his senior aides for a working meeting.
The meeting included both Eshel and the three senior aides who lodged the complaint against him: cabinet secretary Zvi Hauser, chief spokesman Yoav Hendel and military secretary Yohanan Locker.
People present at the meeting said it dealt mainly with items that will be on the agenda at Sunday's cabinet meeting, and that Eshel, Hauser and Hendel discussed the issues with each other in a professional, businesslike manner.
Netanyahu currently has no plans to suspend Eshel or ask him to take a leave of absence. With regard to the allegations against him, the prime minister said merely, "There is an inquiry, and we'll wait patiently for its conclusion. We're busy with enormous challenges and will continue to work on them as usual."
But bureau staffers said the mutual suspicion, bad blood and desire for revenge, between Eshel on one hand and Hauser and Hendel on the other, have made the atmosphere in the bureau intolerable. "It's very unpleasant to wander through the bureau these days," one Netanyahu adviser commented.
The prevailing assumption in the bureau is that, regardless of the results of the Eshel inquiry, either he or those who complained against him will ultimately have to leave. "The Prime Minister's Bureau can't continue to function this way very much longer," said one person close to Netanyahu. "These people can no longer work together."
Civil Service Commission investigators questioned several bureau staffers about the harassment allegations on Thursday and will question others next week. So far, they have not uncovered enough evidence to justify questioning Eshel under caution, and a legal source familiar with the case noted that R.'s refusal to cooperate with the inquiry is a major stumbling block to discovering the truth. Though the investigators do plan to question her, she has refused to lodge a complaint against Eshel herself.
But a source in the bureau insisted that the evidence against Eshel would ultimately prove solid enough to justify disciplinary proceedings, and perhaps even criminal ones. "R. is truly not interested in complaining, but there are enough other people who supplied plenty of information to the commission," he said.
Eshel, who returned to work on Thursday from a 36-hour vacation that had been scheduled several weeks ago, completely rejected the accusations, terming them libelous.
"I'm capable of going into her email?" one associate quoted him as saying. "In the Prime Minister's Bureau, you can only access the computers with a personal [ID] card and a password."
But other sources in the bureau claimed that the allegations published in the media to date - that Eshel read R.'s personal text messages and email and followed her after work hours - are merely the tip of the iceberg. They added that Netanyahu himself is not yet aware of all the details.
"Most of the details haven't yet been published," one source said. "But we're talking about acts that border on sexual harassment."
R. began working in the bureau in June 2009, shortly after Netanyahu took office. Most of her work involves contact with Jewish communities overseas.
Over the past year, she has been going through a divorce, and sources in the bureau said that during this time, she became very close to Eshel, who helped her with various matters.