The Curious Case of Natan Eshel and Bibi's Curious Silence

Natan Eshel, Bibi's right-hand man, is embroiled in one of Israel's most peculiar political scandals. What makes it so dangerous is who's not talking about it.

Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter
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Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter

In the Late Baroque masterpiece "The Swing," Jean-Honore Fragonard's painting from the 18th century, a young woman is being pushed on a swing by her elderly husband, simultaneously allowing her younger lover, who is hiding in the bushes, to peep under her skirt. A modern take on this, in the circles of online voyeurism, is called "upskirt": you look up a lady's skirt and take a photo (or a video) of her crotch area and underwear.

Obviously, this is usually done without her knowing. It's a peculiar fetish but, as indicated by Fragonard, the thrill has been around for centuries.

With the emergence of celebrity culture "upskirt" has taken on a life of its own and become a global pop phenomenon, with numerous websites and publications dedicated to capturing upskirts of movie stars, pop singers and sometimes even politicians.

Natan Eshel, Benjamin Netanyahu's confidant and former chief of staff, is the most famous "upskirter" in Israel. He's never admitted to the offense explicitly but he has confessed to photographing an employee of the Prime Minister's bureau "improperly" in 2012 and was subsequently forced to resign. Whether this is a hobby for Eshel or a single incident (no other women came forward and complained) is unimportant: this single act of intrusion is bound to follow him for the rest of his life.

For most of his career, Natan Eshel was not infamous, or even famous. Two years ago, practically no one in Israel – outside of political correspondents, pundits and lobbyists - knew who he was. Most didn't know he was one of the strongest men in Israel, a close friend and ally of Benjamin Netanyahu, and perhaps more importantly, a close friend and ally of his wife, Sara Netanyahu. In Israel like in many other countries, the Prime Minister's chief of staff does his best work in the shadows. His role, as right-hand man, is not supposed to be a public one. But it became public in January 2012, and has been very public since.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Before he was a political kingmaker, and before he became a confessed offender, the religious Natan Eshel was just a man with very powerful friends. He was born in 1947 in Israel and, like many other Israelis, got his start with a military career, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Afterwards he got involved in politics, joining the national-religious party Mafdal (now dissolved into Habait Hayehudi) and quickly rose up the ranks. He dabbled in journalism, first as the longtime manager of the now-defunct right-wing newspaper HaTzofe, then as vice-president at Israel Hayom, Sheldon Adelson's pro-Netanyahu newspaper.

Over the years, Eshel developed a strong friendship with the Netanyahus. He became a close confidant, deeply entrenched within the tumultuous inner circle of the prime minister for over a decade, a feat accomplished by few. During the 2009 election campaign, his relationship with Netanyahu strengthened. He ran the coalition negotiations after the elections – battling and mending the different factions within the coalition - and was in many ways the architect of Bibi's second government.

In 2010 he was named chief of staff. He has been described by friends and foes as cunning and fiercely loyal but not quite suited for the role he was appointed to, lacking formal experience in running political bureaus.

Eshel's one weakness: loyalty

Still, he was powerful, smart and sometimes ruthless. He did everything possible to protect Netanyahu and contributed heavily to Ehud Barak's decision to leave the Labor party and form his own party, Azmaut, in 2011 to stay in the government when Labor left the coalition. He shied away from cameras and never pursued his own agenda. In media portrayals, he was described as Sara Netanyahu's "representative" within Netanyahu's chambers, often updating her of the goings-on. In would not be a stretch to claim he was one of the main factors contributing to Netanyahu's stability.

Shalom Simhon, outgoing Minister of Trade and Labor, told Channel 2 news in 2012 that when he first met Eshel, he was not thoroughly impressed. "But in three hours I realized he was very serious, very knowledgeable and very sharp." He added that Eshel has "only one weakness: He will never betray his boss. Never. His entire life purpose is to serve his boss. He can be your friend, sure, but if it’s a choice between your friendship and Netanyahu, you know what his choice will be."

So you can imagine the devastation that his transgressions caused in Netanyahu's small and often-conflicted inner circle.

The scandal erupted in early 2012, when it was revealed that the state looked into claims that Eshel sexually harassed one of his employees. This stemmed from complaints by three officials within the Prime Minister's bureau, among them Netanyahu's Director of Communications Yozaz Hendel, who exposed the case and angered Netanyahu by blabbing about Eshel's actions to the attorney general without consulting with the PM first.

The harassed employee, identified in the media as "R," claimed Eshel invaded her privacy, stalked her outside work, went through text messages on her phone and her personal e-mail, and took inappropriate photos of her with his cellphone, without her approval.

Ultimately R refused to testify and Eshel denied any wrongdoing – it is important to note he has not been convicted of any crimes. Eventually he confessed to inappropriate conduct under a plea bargain that forbade him from seeking any civil service positions in the future.

The scandal badly hurt Netanyahu's bureau, making its activities – designed to be hidden from the public and from political rivals – dangerously transparent, and leading to Hendel's resignation.

But Eshel himself was fine, his position within Netanyahu's circle unscathed. In April 2012, Ometz, a government watchdog organization, claimed that despite his resignation and banishment from civil service, Eshel was still active in Prime Minister's office, still serving as Bibi's right-hand man. Eshel may have agreed to leave but in reality he never did. He was too loyal and too valuable.

The hidden protagonist of the story

He was so valuable, in fact, that when Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman were deciding this year who to appoint as their chief negotiator post-elections, Eshel's name came right up. After he was asked, Eshel sent an e-mail to the Prime Minister’s legal adviser, Shlomit Barnea-Farago, asking if this would be an infringement of his plea bargain.

We know he did this because he accidentally sent that e-mail to another woman whose name begins with an S: Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich, who promptly exposed it. Just a week earlier, Eshel denied reports that he would head the coalition talks. This discovery lead to an explosion of online protest, headed by the newly-minted Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg, that eventually succeeded in getting Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party – the second biggest party in the Knesset and Netanyahu's likely senior coalition partner – to announce that it would not negotiate with Eshel.

You can draw all the conclusions you want from the curious case of Natan Eshel. You could claim it serves as a fine example of the common attitude towards women subordinates in post-Moshe Katsav Israel. You could make the case that it is endemic of the attitude towards all Israeli citizens by the ruling elite, not just women. You could even make the claim that Eshel is the true victim here: an innocent man denied his basic freedom, unable to fulfill his sexual desires and participate in the venerable tradition of upskirting.

Either way, it's still one of the most bizarre political scandals in Israeli history. It is also one of the more telling, because the truth is, Natan Eshel is not the real protagonist of the Natan Eshel story. The real protagonist, like in the great mystery novels, has stayed out of the way until now. We're talking, of course, about Benjamin Netanyahu, who has largely kept silent about Eshel since his actions were first exposed.

Natan Eshel, as cunning and efficient as he may be, is only a civil servant, the emphasis on "servant." He is his master's voice, and his master has deemed his service so necessary that it transcends and trumps basic human values. And that's dangerous, because it allows the next Natan Eshel to sleep more soundly at night, knowing he has nothing to lose.

Natan Eshel.Credit: Emil Salman
Natan Eshel, left, whispering in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's ear.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

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