The Prime Minister’s Office uses employees from the National Public Diplomacy Division’s information and communications technology department to monitor the Israeli media for items about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, and their children, Haaretz has learned.
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From internal documents, emails and conversations with current and former department employees, it emerges that flagging down reports on Sara Netanyahu or the family’s private affairs is an even higher priority than collecting news items on diplomatic, security or economic issues.
The task of the public diplomacy division’s ICT department is to provide the prime minister and his senior advisers with a picture of the Israeli media’s agenda, and to alert them in real time to items relating to the government’s work or significant events that transpire throughout the day. The department’s employees spend their day listening to the two major news radio stations, watching the three main television channels, scanning news websites and social networks, and reviewing the daily print press.
According to department sources, during the years Netanyahu has been prime minister the news monitors were instructed to flag down every media item about the Netanyahus’ personal affairs, including in gossip columns, and to report it immediately.
An internal department memo obtained by Haaretz from early 2011 clarifies to the employees monitoring the radio and television stations that reports about Sara Netanyahu or the prime minister’s sons were top priority. “In addition to the main current affairs programs, you must always look out for items relevant to us, even during programs considered ‘entertainment’!” the document says. “Often, there are personal items about the prime minister’s family that are more important than any informative report that appears in the news reports or any other current affairs program!”
Current department employees testify that the order to make media items about the Netanyahu family’s personal affairs a top priority is still in place. This was particularly true during the labor court hearings on the suit filed by the former chief housekeeper at the Prime Minister’s Residence, Meni Naftali, in which he recounted numerous embarrassing incidents involving Sara Netanyahu.
The guidelines for writing the “Prime Minister’s Compilation” of newspaper headlines that is distributed to Netanyahu and his advisers includes similar emphasis on items relating to the Netanyahu family. “Important: The bottom line is that the Prime Minister’s Compilation focuses on the prime minister, and not on various issues on the agenda,” the guidelines state. Department employees are asked to include news items, features, interviews, opinion pieces, photos, cartoons and advertisements in which the prime minister or his family are mentioned or appear.
“It’s important to pay attention to more than the big headlines or main stories,” the document states. “Items on the prime minister and his family will also appear in the gossip columns or unexpectedly in interviews Please note that the economic supplements of the papers also have gossip columns, not just the leisure sections. If there is an item about the prime minister’s family, you are to inform Avraham by SMS. Such items are especially sensitive and it’s important to be aware of them ahead of anything else.”
“Avraham” refers to Avraham Finkelstein, a former reporter for Yedioth Ahronoth who has headed the ICT department since 2009. Emails that Finkelstein sent to department employees and obtained by Haaretz testify to the great pressure he and other department employees were subject to regarding media reports about the Netanyahu family. In those emails, Finkelstein repeatedly stresses the need to immediately alert him to “problematic” items, in one case saying, “In the end they will take off our heads if the failures [to report such items] don’t stop.”
Employees said they would often receive requests from Netanyahu’s bureau to immediately produce transcripts of reports dealing with the Netanyahu family, or DVDs with TV and radio reports of such stories. Once, they were asked to transcribe an entire Israel Radio item dealing with Sara Netanyahu’s father, the late Shmuel Ben-Artzi. That assignment was deemed top priority and the transcripts were sent to Sara Netanyahu’s personal assistants in the Prime Minister’s Residence.
Another time, they were asked to transcribe an Army Radio item dealing with Yair and Avner Netanyahu, the couple’s sons, and to save the relevant audio file on 20 different CDs. One of the prime minister’s drivers came to take the material back to the Netanyahus.
“In all these cases they would sit on our heads to get the material out as fast as possible,” said a former employee. “Even if it wasn’t stated clearly, we always understood who was asking for it.”
Another employee said that, at a certain point, the “spirit of the commander” permeated the department and there was no need for special instructions. “It’s a division that’s meant to deal with public diplomacy and not the prime minister’s personal issues,” he said. “But a reality emerged that turned all the priorities upside down.”
Finkelstein responded that he "totally rejects the claim that [issues other than those on the government's agenda] are given top priority by the department."