A few days ago, two of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s close associates, attorneys David Shimron and Isaac Molcho, arrived at the prime minister’s residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem. They were joined by Moshe Leon, a close associate of Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman.
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The men were convening to make some preliminary preparations for the upcoming coalition negotiations. Also in attendance was Natan Eshel, Netanyahu's bureau chief until early 2012.
Eshel, once one of the most powerful men in the state, was forced to resign in disgrace last February after being accused of sexually harassing a subordinate. Under a plea bargain, he confessed to inappropriate conduct, excessive fraternizing and taking unacceptable pictures of this employee. Eshel also committed to not seeking any civil service positions in the future.
But while Netanyahu distanced the senior officials in his bureau who reported the harassment, he made sure that Eshel got a very generous and comfortable severance arrangement. Despite his serious transgressions, Eshel remained the premier’s top confidant. Although he may have officially left the bureau, he never stopped being the mover and shaker for Benjamin and Sarah Netanyahu, especially on sensitive political and personal affairs.
From the formation of the unity government with Kadima in May, through the merger with Yisrael Beiteinu ahead of the election, and meddling in the Habayit Hayehudi primaries, up to the talks between Netanyahu and Ehud Barak about setting up a state commission of inquiry to investigate the Harpaz affair – Eshel was always there.
That’s why, even before Election Day, when Netanyahu and Lieberman began to plan who would conduct their coalition negotiations, Eshel’s name came up immediately. Eshel denied last week that he planned to be involved in the coalition talks, but a minor technical error disclosed that his denials were false.
Eshel, apparently, fell victim to his email address book; fate determined that an email he wanted to send to Prime Minister’s Office legal adviser Shlomit Barnea-Fargo was also sent by mistake to none other Labor party chairwoman Shelly Yacimovich, who posted a screen capture of the email on her Facebook page on Monday.
Aside from being the smoking gun that proved Eshel's involvement in the coalition talks, the email testifies to the degree Eshel is still involved in matters of the Prime Minister's Office. Although he is a private citizen with no official position, he didn’t hesitate to ask the PMO's legal adviser to approve his return to public activity.
Eshel’s effort to be included in the negotiation team is part of a wider issue. He still believes he will be able to return to public service in the near future, a belief that only gained credence when Barnea-Fargo gave him a green light to join the coalition-building team.
Moreover, during the past few months he has been obsessively trying to rewrite history with regard to the humiliating and serious scandal that forced him out of his job. Almost every journalist, including this writer, who dared write Eshel’s name and the word “harassment” in the same paragraph was treated to a furious text message that sometimes included a threat to sue for libel.
The soon-to-be Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg also got such an email after she wrote a letter on Sunday to Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein demanding that Eshel be excluded from the coalition talks.
“Tamar doesn’t yet have immunity from [being sued for] libel,” Eshel wrote to Zandberg. “There is no harassment claim against me, certainly not sexual, and there are no restrictions on my public activity. I never heard you chirping about [Haim] Ramon, who was convicted with moral turpitude.”
On Friday Eshel met with his good friend Yoni Koren, Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s bureau chief, at a coffee shop in Tel Aviv's Ramat Aviv neighborhood. A person who overheard their conversation said Eshel was boasting about the fact that he planned to be involved in the coalition talks and even offered Koren a few possible cabinet scenarios. Eshel confirms that he met with Koren, but says they did not discuss the future coalition.
So in the end, Eshel will not be an official member of the coalition negotiating team. He won’t be on the front lines and his face will not appear in photos of the meetings between the party representatives. But Yair Lapid, who has declared that his people will not sit with Eshel, ought to know that the former bureau chief will continue to meddle from behind the scenes and will be Netanyahu’s envoy for “special assignments.” As long as Netanyahu remains prime minister, Eshel will be there, too.