WASHINGTON — Just 11 days ago, on September 11, the David Keyes affair – allegations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesman of improper behavior toward women – was limited to accusations by two women. And Keyes, still in office, was denying them, and still is.
A week and a half later and Keyes is on leave after being accused by at least 14 women of improper behavior. The scandal now also includes a debate on the conduct of Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, who was warned about Keyes’ alleged bad behavior back in 2016.
As first reported by The New York Times, Dermer was contacted on November 2, 2016, by Bret Stephens, then a senior writer and editor for The Wall Street Journal and now a columnist for The Times. The call took place just six days before that year’s U.S. elections in which Donald Trump was elected president. Dermer was very busy that week, but he put time aside to talk to Stephens, who said he wanted to pass on important information to the ambassador.
As sources told Haaretz, Stephens told Dermer that he was calling to warn him about Keyes’ alleged questionable behavior toward women, based on stories he had heard. Dermer, according to a source with knowledge of the conversation, took Stephens’ warning seriously. The two had known each other for years, and Dermer thanked Stephens for warning him. In addition, Dermer told Stephens that he had also heard “rumors” about Keyes’ conduct, but that he had no concrete proof that could be passed on to the Prime Minister’s Office.
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According to the sources, Dermer asked Stephens if he had solid proof such as a firsthand account by one of the women who had complained about Keyes. Stephens said he knew about bad behavior by Keyes, but not about any solid accusations of criminal sexual assault. In addition, he said that none of the women he had heard from were willing at the time to go public.
Stephens did tell Dermer, however, that he was convinced there was a problem with Keyes. That was based on conversations Stephens had with female staffers at The Journal who had complained about Keyes years before he became Netanyahu’s spokesman. He told Dermer that Keyes was a risk to women working at the Prime Minister’s Office, and that his employment there would lead to trouble.
Dermer figured, according to a source with knowledge of the conversation, that without firsthand testimony of criminal behavior by Keyes, he couldn’t take the issue to the prime minister. While he had known even before the conversation with Stephens about rumors of improper behavior by Keyes, Dermer felt that those rumors couldn’t justify bringing the issue to Netanyahu. The conversation with Stephens didn’t change that, Dermer believed.
Last week, after Dermer’s 2016 conversation with Stephens was revealed, the Keyes affair spawned a separate Dermer affair, with opposition legislators in the Knesset attacking the ambassador for not reporting the conversation with Stephens. Meanwhile, Israel’s Civil Service Commission is examining Dermer’s conduct. He’s also being mentioned in U.S. news reports on the Keyes affair.
Dermer is currently one of the most influential ambassadors in Washington. He enjoys a very close relationship with senior officials in the Trump administration. It’s unclear if the inquiry into Keyes will affect his standing in Washington. Netanyahu recently extended his appointment by a year.
In recent weeks, Haaretz has spoken to a number of sources who were involved in the revelation of the accusations against Keyes. These sources all said that rumors, which Dermer was also aware of, had been circulating in pro-Israel circles in the United States for years.
And yet, even though “everyone knew,” an unusual set of circumstances was necessary for the information to come out.
Keyes was tapped as Netanyahu’s spokesman for international media in 2016. At the time, his appointment came as a surprise because he didn’t have experience as a media adviser, journalist or diplomat, unlike some of his predecessors. Keyes’ main expertise was producing independent hasbara videos – PR videos for Israel – online. In fact, this was one of the main reasons Netanyahu had taken him on: He was looking for someone to help him bypass the traditional media and get his message to go viral on social networks.
Yet the first viral story involving Keyes at the Prime Minister’s Office was a negative one. Soon after his appointment was announced, Julia Salazar, back then a little-known left-wing activist from New York, accused Keyes on Facebook of sexually assaulting her in 2013. Her post received wide coverage in the Israeli media. Keyes denied the allegations and said the two had consensual sex at his apartment.
Salazar’s claims didn’t open up a Pandora’s Box; they stayed in the headlines for a few days and then disappeared. She deleted her post, and most media outlets lost interest. She didn’t file a complaint against Keyes, and he didn’t sue her for defamation. The media moved on to other stories, and Keyes began working at the Prime Minister’s Office as planned.
Yet in the following months, a number of Israeli journalists learned of other women saying they had been hurt by Keyes. One reporter who picked up the story was Raphael Ahren, a diplomatic correspondent for The Times of Israel. Ahren contacted a number of women who alleged improper behavior by Keyes.
The information Ahren collected led him to Stephens. It turned out that back in 2013, when Keyes was doing his independent hasbara work, he would often visit the offices of The Wall Street Journal. Sources told Haaretz that Keyes would spend hours at the newspaper’s offices, and Stephens became curious about why someone not a staff member spent so much time there.
At some point, Stephens became aware of the complaints by female staff members regarding Keyes, the sources said. Stephens took Keyes for a conversation, berated him for being a “shame on the male sex” and “a shame on Judaism,” and told him he was forbidden to visit the offices again unless he had a specific invitation for a specific event.
Ahren’s interest in the story contributed to Stephens’ decision to contact Dermer and warn him about Keyes in November 2016. Yet Dermer felt that the conversation with Stephens didn’t contain enough provable information in order to act. The Israeli Embassy said in a statement last week that if Dermer had received concrete information on sexual-misconduct allegations against a member of the Prime Minister’s Office, he would have passed them on to Jerusalem.
The subtext was clear: Dermer thought Stephens’ warning wasn’t something he could prove, and the events described were unpleasant, but not necessarily criminal.
Six days after Dermer and Stephens’ conversation, Donald Trump became president of the United States.
The Salazar angle
The allegations against Keyes remained hidden from the public, but in the summer of 2017, another newspaper became interested in them – The New York Times. One reason was the fact that Keyes, according to Israeli media reports, was being considered by Netanyahu to become Israel’s next ambassador to the United Nations. While these reports were not confirmed or verified, the mere possibility that Keyes would return to New York as a senior Israeli diplomat caused some of the women previously unwilling to go public to reconsider.
Yet before any of them could reach a decision, the story was coming out – as a satellite issue to Salazar’s campaign to represent her Brooklyn neighborhood in the New York State Senate. On September 11, just two days before the Democratic primary in which Salazar was competing, the right-wing website Daily Caller published a story that revisited her complaint against Keyes from 2016.
Before that story had been published, Salazar had already become the country’s most famous State Senate candidate because of news stories questioning claims she had made about her background. The Daily Caller”story seemed to be an attempt to further put her credibility into question. But unlike the previous reports about her, which damaged her credibility, this one had the opposite effect.
Before the article was even published, Salazar wrote a post on Facebook in which she again accused Keyes of assaulting her in 2013. This time, soon after her post, another woman came forward – Shayndi Raice, a national correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. “I also had a terrible encounter with David Keyes once and 100% believe [Salazar]. I knew this would come out about him at some point,” she wrote.
A day later, the Times of Israel report was published, stating that at least 10 women had complained about Keyes. The New York Times soon published its own story, including the first report about the phone call between Stephens and Dermer.
Keyes is denying all the allegations, which he has called false and misleading. Last week he announced that he was taking time off to clear his name. It’s hard to see him returning to Netanyahu’s office anytime soon, or being promoted to a diplomatic posting. Salazar, meanwhile, won her State Senate primary. It’s still unclear if the affair will have any impact on Dermer.