The prime minister’s bureau has for the past six years been using employees of the National Public Diplomacy Directorate’s information and communications technology department to monitor media reports about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political rivals, according to internal emails and conversations with current and past employees of the department.
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On Tuesday, following a report in Haaretz that the prime minister’s bureau used employees of this department, who are state employees, to follow private matters regarding the Netanyahu family, opposition MKs Nachman Shai and Tamar Zandberg asked Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein to investigate the matter.
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According to procedures and directives of the Civil Service Commission and the attorney general, cabinet ministers and the prime minister are not allowed to use state employees for tasks involving political or personal matters. The employees, for their part, are prohibited from carrying out such assignments.
However, information obtained by Haaretz indicates that the employees of the information and communications technology department breached these rules. For example, on October 12, 2010, the department’s director, Avraham Finkelstein, wrote an email to his staffers whose subject line was “Tzipi Livni.” At that time, Livni was head of the opposition and considered Netanyahu’s key political rival.
“Please let me know directly at any time, at work or at home, about any statement by Tzipi Livni, even if she does not relate directly to the prime minister,” Finkelstein wrote, while stressing the importance of the matter.
Finkelstein’s directive to the media monitors came a few days after he was scolded by senior figures in Netanyahu’s bureau because the prime minister had not been informed in real time of a statement by Livni against him.
“Yesterday at 18:29, there was a headline in Haaretz: ‘Livni – they are cheapening the Jewish state,’” Finkelstein wrote the monitors on October 11. “At around 21:15, after we did not bring this out, a harsh response came [from Netanyahu’s bureau]. ‘Why didn’t you bring this out?’ A text message that came out afterward of the things Livni said on Israel Radio Reshet Bet did not help, to put it mildly. People, pay attention and respond, because this really doesn’t look good,” Finkelstein wrote his subordinates.
A number of employees of the department at various times between 2010 and 2014 said there was a clear directive to monitor Livni’s statements or report on her activities “very closely,” according to one employee.
Livni was not the only figure so monitored. According to employees of the department between 2009 and 2011, they were also asked to follow statements by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert because he would publicly criticize Netanyahu from time to time. A similar directive was issued with regard to Ehud Barak, who served as defense minister in Netanyahu’s government and was considered very close to him.
Instructions were also given in this vein during 2013 and 2014. A former employee of the department said that one of the most prominent figures whose statements were monitored was Economy Minister and Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett, particularly during the period of tension between Bennett and Netanyahu over diplomatic negotiations. “For a few days, the clash between Bennett and Netanyahu was the most important thing we were asked to cover,” the staffer said.
The information and communications technology department was also asked to report to the prime minister’s bureau on opinion polls as soon as they were published in the media. On November 14, Finkelstein sent an email to his staffers that they were to be very strict about swiftly reporting on the polls in the media, particularly those that appeared on Friday.
“These are items of unparalleled importance and you must bring their publication to my attention quickly,” Finkelstein wrote.
Employees of the department, especially those monitoring television, were asked to pay special attention to commentators considered more critical of the prime minister. For example, a document outlining the department’s internal procedures, which defines how the 8 P.M. main news broadcast was to be covered on the three channels, stated that statements about the prime minister by Channel 10’s Raviv Drucker and Channel 2’s Amnon Abramovitch were to be transcribed in full.
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The Prime Minister’s Office responded that “in complete opposition to the claims, the information and communications technology department is not given political tasks. Additionally, immediately after the announcement that the elections were to be moved up, the director of the monitoring department, on December 3, 2014, issued an email statement to all monitors to which a document was attached from the Prime Minister’s Office legal adviser regarding ‘instructions applying to all employees of the ministry during elections to the 20th Knesset’ including directives of the attorney general and the Civil Service Commission.
“In the email the director of the monitoring department wrote: ‘This is a very important document. It is to be read closely and the instructions followed strictly as far as the statements involve us as the monitoring unit and each employee individually.’ A week later on October 12, 2014, it was made clear again in an email sent to all monitors that ‘the prohibition against dealing with political issues must be fully and strictly complied with.’”
However, from a check on Tuesday in the monitoring department following the Haaretz report, it emerged that the article’s quotes are from an internal instructional manual of the monitoring department, in place of which an updated procedure will be formulated. Additionally, a sample check revealed that the average rate of materials produced regarding diplomatic, security, economic and other national issues make up 95 percent of the material produced, which is estimated at hundreds of thousands of monitored materials in recent years and reflects the issues on the media agenda about the activities of the government, the Prime Minister’s Office and the prime minister. This is based on a check of thousands of reports that were monitored in January 2014 and checked again Tuesday.