Amid Facebook Campaign, Yesh Atid Refuses Coalition Talks With ex-Netanyahu Aide Accused of Sexual Harassment

Some 4,000 people join Facebook group started by Israeli woman to protest involvement of Natan Eshel, Netanyahu's former bureau chief, who denies role in talks.

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Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid announced Sunday it would not hold coalition talks with Natan Eshel, a close confident of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who left his bureau last year amid accusations of sexual harassment. The party's decision came in the wake of a woman's protest launched against Eshel over the weekend. Eshel, meanwhile, denied having a role in Likud-Beiteinu's talks with prospective coalition members.

Eshel resigned his position as bureau chief in the Prime Minister's Office last March 1, following a plea bargain with the Civil Service Commission regarding a sexual harassment complaint brought against him. After admitting to misconduct, Eshel received a severe reprimand and was forbidden to return to government service.

As of last night close to 4,000 people had joined a Facebook group entitled "If Natan Eshel's in the Bureau - Women Refuse to Join the Government." The organizers called on all political parties planning to enter coalition talks with Netanyahu to agree to do so only on condition that Eshel is not involved, "because one doesn't negotiate with sex offenders."

Revital Madar, the organizer of the protest, said she had read last week of Netanyahu's intention to involve Eshel in the talks.

"This seemed illogical to me," she said. "There's been so much talk about 'new politics' and they'll sit in negotiations with a sex offender? Before they start thinking about equalizing the military service burden they should make it clear that with a sex offender they won't discuss anything at all."

While the call was issued to all parties, it specifically mentioned Yesh Atid, which has eight women in its 19-member faction, and Habayit Hayehudi, which has three women among its 12.

Sunday night Yesh Atid officially announced that it would not conduct talks with Eshel. Earlier, MK-elect Tamar Zandberg of Meretz wrote to Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, demanding that he "enforce the plea agreement and order the prime minister not to involve Eshel in any type of public post. Send a clear message that sexual harassment and violence against women are serious violations, and that a person who was distanced from public service for these violations should not be allowed to return to a position of influence as if nothing happened."

Gila Oshrat, chairman of the WIZO women's organization, wrote a similar letter to Weinstein yesterday.

Eshel, meanwhile, denied that he was going to be part of the coalition negotiations team, and Likud sources said Netanyahu's attorneys David Shimron and Isaac Molcho would be conducting the talks.

Nevertheless, Likud sources said that while Eshel will not play any official role in the talks, the party might use him for "special assignments" during the negotiations because of the trust Netanyahu has in him, and because he has substantial experience in building and maintaining coalitions over the years.

It was Eshel, for example, who shepherded Kadima into the ruling coalition last year, a move considered brilliant at the time, but that went sour after only a few weeks over disagreements on proposals to draft Haredim into the army.

Natan Eshel. Credit: Nir Keidar

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