'I Was Involved in the Malka Leifer Case. It Was a Mistake on My Part'

Crisis-communication expert Ofer Rosenbaum is behind some of the most inflammable media campaigns in Israel. 'I'm the gun on the table,' he tells Haaretz

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Ofer Rosenbaum in Tel Aviv. 'I’ve done many things that I feel crap about. I’ve learned to turn it off.'
Ofer Rosenbaum in Tel Aviv. 'I’ve done many things that I feel crap about. I’ve learned to turn it off.'Credit: Tomer Applebaum
Hagai Amit
Hagai Amit
Hagai Amit
Hagai Amit

As with cigarette packets, an interview with PR guru Ofer Rosenbaum requires a warning: The interviewee knows how to manipulate the media. In recent years, Rosenbaum has been the mastermind behind efforts like the billboards in the 2020 election campaign depicting Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas handcuffed and blindfolded.

There was also the attempt to prevent the extradition of Malka Leifer, the former school principal who in Australia faces dozens of charges of child sex abuse against some of her female students.

There was also the campaign in the central city of Lod to aid a local Garin Torani group – young religious people who move to a city neighborhood and run religious, social and educational activities there. This particular effort got underway after an Arab Israeli, Moussa Hassouna, was shot by Jews on the first night of the rioting in Lod in May 2021 during the fighting with Gaza.

Billboards during the 2020 election campaign portraying Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas blindfolded and surrendering.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

These are only a few examples. It’s all part of Rosenbaum’s expertise, crisis communication: gathering and disseminating information to try to save the reputation of a person, company or organization.

Rosenbaum, 35, divorced and the father of three, lives in Netanya north of Tel Aviv, where he grew up as an only child. His parents divorced when he was young; he says he wasn’t in touch with his father for most of his life.

Before he was drafted into the army, he wanted to be a combat soldier, so he forged his mother’s signature. He was assigned to the Gaza Division but got transferred to the National Defense College.

“I served for a year; the whole time in the army was a waste,” he says. “I gained a lot of weight and they released me for the first season of ‘The Biggest Loser,’” the Israeli version of the American reality show where overweight contestants try to slim down.

About five years ago, the daily Yedioth Ahronoth described Rosenbaum, who is 190 centimeters tall, or nearly 6-foot-3, “the heaviest man in Israel to undergo bariatric surgery.” He lost about half his body weight.

He studied communications at Netanya Academic College and then worked as a journalist at a local newspaper in the Yedioth Ahronoth Group. He got married and was earning 4,000 shekels (currently $1,140) a month.

“The woman who’s now my ex told me that I needed to work with money, and then I saw a little want ad for [businessman] Ronen Tzur’s crisis department,” he says.

Ofer Rosenbaum in southern Tel Aviv.Credit: Tomer Applebaum

Is that what you dreamed of becoming when you were little, a crisis adviser?

“When I was a kid I wanted to be a wrestler. Then I wanted to be a rock star. But I’m not an athlete and I don’t know how to play an instrument. I can’t even write. I have a problem with fine motor skills. With Tzur I had an immediate connection, and I became his protégé.

“Six months after I came to him, the woman in charge of his crisis department left and I asked to replace her. I don’t know who had more balls, me for asking or Ronen for giving it to me. This is work with a lot of responsibility working with media outlets and clients. When a kid of 24 with no experience gets this, he kills himself over it.”

Meaning what?

“I took everything they taught me. I was always thinking about how to upgrade the department. In this industry, the stimulus threshold is always rising. Things I would have done a decade ago that would have raised an uproar I can do today and you wouldn’t write a word about it.”

Rosenbaum also describes another aspect of the business – one effort involved Tel Aviv’s Kikar Hamedina, a large traffic circle ringed by high-end stores. Companies like Louis Vuitton had left for Ramat Aviv, a neighborhood to the north.

“It was looking like the place was declining from its greatness. They wanted us to get people to write that these were prestigious stores and all the rich people were there. I found myself calling the consumer affairs writers and asking them to write that these were luxury shops, but I wasn’t succeeding,” Rosenbaum says.

Malka Leifer in a Jerusalem courtroom in 2018 before her extradition to Australia on sexual assault charges.Credit: Mahmoud Illean/AP

“Then I wrote a letter to the mayor, Ron Huldai: ‘We demand an admissions committee so that not just anyone could enter Kikar Hamedina. It’s impossible that there will be grocery stores there.’ I sent the letter to him and Yedioth Ahronoth. The next day an article was published with a picture of Kikar Hamedina.”

Below was the caption “At the luxury plaza they’re worried.” For two weeks, Kikar Hamedina was covered as “Israel’s luxury plaza,” Rosenbaum says. “You can check how sales went up there that month. ... The rich people said to themselves: ‘This is the place where we want to be.’”

After about five years as the department head, he left Tzur’s company. “Ronen brought in a woman to be the deputy CEO, and we decided to take a break, knowing that eventually we’d work together again,” Rosenbaum says.

Bad news for the opposing side

His next stop was a large media consultancy, Ben Horin & Alexandrovitz. “They’re professionals, and they brought me in for crises. But I work aggressively,” he says.

Rosenbaum did a campaign for the Israeli beer brand Goldstar, which was having problems with women’s groups because of a commercial that included the slogan “Be thankful you’re a man and have a drink.” “When I came with tougher things, they wanted me to work elegantly and delicately,” Rosenbaum says.

As he puts it, “I have a unique toolbox. There are people who know how to do public relations 1,000 times better than me. With me, no client stays longer than four months. Sometimes great intimacy develops with a client and he wants me to deal with the whole aspect of the media. I explain that I’m not there.

Rosenbaum. 'Anybody else would have dropped everything and rushed over to the hospital. I kept working, even though I’m an only child.'Credit: Tomer Applebaum

“I don’t know how to explain to the public why they should buy a certain product; I do know how to convey the message that they shouldn’t buy the competitor’s product. My specialty is doing bad things. That’s how they defined it for me and that’s how I grew in the profession. And when that’s the definition of the role, over the years I’ve become good at it. I’m best at doing bad things.”

Bad for whom?

“Bad for the opposing side. When things that I know don’t make it into the media, it’s not because you journalists wouldn’t be interested. It’s because I have no interest in crushing a person.

“My work model is based on three aspects. First, people don’t change. Second, when I build a file on someone, if I want to know what he’ll do, I’ll examine his past. In future situations he’ll replicate his actions from the past. Third, if I’ve put a person in a tight spot, the previous two aspects become irrelevant. I don’t know how he’ll react.”

What do you mean by putting someone in a tight spot?

"Two months ago, a story came to me about a guy who wanted to be elected to the board of a public agency; he was making things difficult for the other members. So I did some digging and found out that he had served jail time for relations with a minor. "

Were you approached by the public agency?

“It’s never the organization. It’s always a lawyer representing somebody trying to prevent the appointment.”

Who did the lawyer represent? Do you always know who hires you?

“You don’t have to be a genius. I know the big players and survey the state of play – just like when you open a newspaper you can tell exactly who initiated a story and in what interest. In this case I checked the details and found information on the guy. If I gave this information to a journalist, they’d run with it.

“This is the stuff of headlines. It would destroy the company and destroy the guy’s life. I had a very specific target: This person needs to be stopped. ... So I organized some pretty nasty stuff. I dug into the past and found the girl’s testimony, and I put together some footage that was sent to one phone only. His. That was enough. He got the message.”

Did he remove himself from the running?

“No one has heard from him since.”

Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem at the funeral of one of the victims of the 2021 Mount Meron disaster.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

This is extortion. Isn’t that a criminal offense?

“Why? I didn’t expose anything. I just told him, ‘If you’re nominated for the position, these things might see the light of day.’ We never threatened to expose things that never happened.”

You had his back to the wall.

“No. He was the only one we sent it to.”

What are you concerned about? That he’ll kill himself?

“First of all, yes. I never want that to happen. Second, maybe he has some dirt on my client and thinks: ‘If I go down, you’re going down with me; I’m exposing everything I have on you. I have nothing to lose.’ I want things to end quietly. I’m hired to put a gun on the table. Most of my clients want me to generate a crisis situation.”

Rosenbaum didn’t stay with Ben Horin & Alexandrovitz for long. “My mother died during that time. I was with a client in the middle of interviewing a mayor in crisis, and they called from Laniado Hospital [in Netanya] telling me to come and say goodbye to my mother,” Rosenbaum says.

“Anybody else would have dropped everything and rushed over to the hospital. I kept working, even though I’m an only child. I arrived there too late to see her. I took it really hard. My son was only 6 months old; he only saw me on weekends and hardly knew me. So I decided that if I was already giving 6,000 percent, I should work as an independent.”

In 2016, Rosenbaum returned to his former employer, a subsidiary of Tzur’s company, this time as head of media and communications.

Ofer Rosenbaum. "I'm best at doing bad things."Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

“It was a laboratory for me. I wanted to challenge the system – push boundaries and see what I could get away with. The most senior people wanted to work with me – from the public sector, celebrities, politicians and the nongovernmental sector,” he says.

“When they come to me, I ask them to do the most difficult thing: Let go and relinquish control to me. The client needs to tell me everything, and I explain that anything they leave out will eventually come to the surface. Forty percent of clients come to me because they’re stuck in some situation.

“But the majority come to me to generate a crisis – not because they’re bad people but because they want a preemptive strike. I’ll give you an example I have nothing to do with: Reuven Rivlin’s presidential election campaign [among lawmakers in 2014]. He ran against Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Meir Sheetrit and Silvan Shalom. Over a few months, dirt surfaced about the three of them. No more rival candidates were left.

“These things don’t happen randomly. It’s natural for the media to closely examine aspiring candidates, and things surface. It isn’t always necessarily the result of a deliberate smear campaign. The media looks for stuff, and I collect it all in my files until somebody decides to run for office. In my 12 years on the job I’ve learned that everybody has something to hide.”

Even us?

“I haven’t looked yet. Let’s wait and see how this interview turns out. When you publish a story, sometimes a dedicated researcher does a good job, but sometimes they just get work from a file. They have to verify all the information in the file, but it’s not their own research.

“I’ve turned into a machine”

As an industry source puts it about Rosenbaum, “The issue in this field is if you have any boundaries. When you don’t, it backfires on the clients. You lead them into situations they never planned on being in. He and Tzur cross the line, so ... in the long run their clients go elsewhere. When two alpha scorpions like Tzur and Rosenbaum work in parallel, one of them will get stung.”

First responders at the 2018 flash flood disaster at Nahal Tzafit near the Dead Sea.Credit: Ilan Assayag

Sure enough, the two parted ways last December. In a lawsuit filed against Tzur in February, Rosenbaum says Tzur’s office refuses to release information on their earnings, preventing him from determining if he received his due. Tzur, however, says Rosenbaum has been denied the information because he refuses to sign a confidentiality agreement. Each side is threatening to expose damaging information on the other.

Don’t you have any feelings of guilt in this line of work? Tzur’s company worked with Malka Leifer, a suspected pedophile. Haven’t you done some awful things?

“I’ve done many things that I feel crap about. I’ve learned to turn it off; I’ve turned into a machine. Do you stand behind every word you’ve ever written as a journalist? I doubt it. But I've never written anything that makes me think ‘you’ve killed somebody.’ There are plenty of things that weigh heavily on me. I learned early on that you have to be detached.

“A very senior figure comes to me and he’s hysterical; in such a state he’ll commit every possible mistake. I can’t join him in his hysteria. I have to analyze the situation rationally and maybe slap him and tell him ‘enough.’

“My red line is that is that I never do anything illegal. And I stay away from sexual harassment cases. During the wave of #MeToo cases I was approached by some famous people involved in scandals, but I turned them down. But the firm took them on.

“I was involved in the Leifer case. This was a mistake on my part. We had some really strong material showing how powerful people pulled strings in her case, stuff that should never happen. We ran it by some senior reporters who refused to publish it. There was a lot of money involved; I can’t go into details. A decision was reached that I wouldn’t release anything, but we took on the case. Now my name is on it, and I’m not proud of it. My other red lines are animal abuse and anti-vaxxers.

“I’ll tell you about another case. The worst crises always happen over the weekend. A year ago I was hanging out with friends on a Thursday and my phone wouldn’t stop vibrating. I looked at it and read about overcrowding at Mount Meron and that people had been injured [and ultimately 45 ultra-Orthodox Jews were killed in a stampede at a religious event at the site in northern Israel]. I rushed home, turned on the TV and waited for the phone to ring. I knew it would come but didn’t know from whom – maybe a politician, or maybe somebody at the scene who needed me to intervene, or maybe family members of the victims.

Tel Aviv's Kikar Hamedina. Rosenbaum ensured that the square kept its luxury image.Credit: David Bachar.

“The phone eventually rang. Two days later I was called to a meeting in Jerusalem with two ultra-Orthodox men. I could figure out which sect they belonged to from their attire. They asked me to ensure – during the shivah – that the state wouldn’t interfere at Mount Meron the following year.

“According to them, ‘if the state interferes, next year we’ll have Reform Jews there. If some cosmetic changes are needed, we’ll take care of it. But we can’t have anybody touching the mount.’ I thought to myself: ‘People are still sitting shivah. What do you think I am?’ I was disgusted with myself, disgusted with the thought that people had heard that I do things like this and that I was the person to turn to. I turned them down.

“During the Nahal Tzafit disaster [where teenage students at a pre-military academy were killed in a flash flood in 2018], we were helping the council of the pre-military programs. We were contacted during the disaster and we immediately realized that something massive was happening, a national disaster, and people were about to sling mud at each other.

“That night I started a WhatsApp group with people from the education minister’s office to manage the affair smoothly. Even though they agreed to no mudslinging, three hours later the media reported calls by anonymous sources to shut down the whole pre-military-program industry. I fought back.

“We immediately told the media who used to be in charge of the pre-military programs at the ministry but had recently retired. It was important for him to explain that he had warned the ministry that changes had to be made. I put him front and center, and the anonymous sources realized they had to consider what they were doing.”

Are there other cases you took and regret?

“There’s one big one that I can’t go into detail about. It was early on. It was a case where people who never should have been hurt were hurt, and what I did had a seriously negative impact on them. I took it so badly that I tendered my resignation to Ronen Tzur. I couldn’t deal with their suffering anymore. He told me, “You idiot. Look at the reputation you’ve created for yourself.”

And what about cases you’ve turned down?

“Recently a bereaved father from the religious-Zionist community came to me and wanted to start a memorial campaign for his son to promote construction in the territories. I suggested something delicate that would appeal to a religious-Zionist audience. He made a face and said: ‘I don’t think that’s what my son would have wanted. He wanted Israel to return to the days of King David.’ I answered: ‘I’m not sure I can or want to do that.”

Ronen Tzur, Ofer Rosenbaum's former partner in crisis communication.Credit: Rami Zarnegar

Has anyone regretted hiring you?

“I have a standard speech for every potential client: ‘I don’t know what you’ve heard about me, but I’m not a particularly nice person. If you hire me it’s to end things quickly, usually in an aggressive way. Don’t hire me just to obstruct me. I know how to do things in a way that might be very painful, but it’s one hit and we’re done.’

“This week I had a meeting with a local council in a crisis. I offered them a way to bring a real-estate situation to a close very quickly, through information I had on a guy who has to be dealt with. They said it was too brutal for them. I respected their wishes.”

So you kept the material?

“I locked it in three different safes across the country. At some point, they’ll call me.”

Not on your smartphone though?

“I have several. I change SIM cards every week in one of them, so it has a sticker with the number so I can remember it. That’s my mission smartphone, for real-time projects, and I erase everything every week. I also have a personal one, not for work. And I have others in the car for various needs.”

‘In your safest space’

“When I have something of value, I hold onto it,” Rosenbaum says. “I won’t get it published without having a reason. I build cases. At some point, somebody will want to use it.”

Do you have information on everybody?

“Not everybody. We’re heading to another election, so I know I have to gather stuff on about 10 people. At some point somebody will contact me and want to buy some of the material, so I’m putting in the work and have a team of researchers.

“Maybe we‘ll get a call right now – or in a year. Either way, these people don’t fade away. They move from job to job, and when they get a more senior position, the price will be higher. By the way, I don’t like election campaigns. Politicians have a bad payment ethic.”

Regarding the next election, is there anything left about Benny Gantz? About Bibi and Sara Netanyahu?

“Not everything about them is out yet. I’ve been working on the next election for the last two months. ... But the public is more indifferent these days, and the excitement threshold is higher.

Who was your most difficult client?

“A year ago, I was working with a Garin Torani group in Lod. They called us on the morning after the May 2021 shooting [that killed Moussa Hassouna]. We went over there and found ourselves on a battlefield in the middle of Israel. I was with them the night the buses from the [West Bank] arrived full of armed civilians.

“These are very moral, good people you’re trying to manage, but they’re from another world and there was no time to form a connection. We helped them with the media campaign to prevent the shooters’ detention from being extended. We recruited Knesset members and ministers, and put pressure on the police. We organized large demonstrations outside the courthouse. We got the public portraying them as heroes.”

How do you organize a demonstration?

“I have some clients that I advise for free. But for another client, if I need 20 buses, he’ll provide them for me. I haven’t invented anything here. I’ll repeat slogans over and over to you at Shabbat dinner, in your safest space. I know that I have to fact-check every word you say. The only thing that interests me is my client. Unlike you, my aim is to bring out the entire story.

“I’m the one who needs to create an incentive for the decision-makers. To make something seem relevant. My job replaces the lobbyists. The decision-makers open TheMarker [Haaretz’s business section] in the morning and say: ‘This is on the public agenda. We want a tweet, a social media post and a committee hearing.’ The story catches fire, and I then I’m left with managing it.

Are you right-wing or a leftist?

“I don’t deal with any radical leftists or the far right or anything non-Zionist.”

Tzur made a name for himself using aggressive methods. Did you have any issues with his methods?

“No, I learned a lot from him.”

Is he willing to go further than you?

“I think that in some cases I managed to improve his capabilities. I operate in a different world than he does. I set up a company ... that only works in cyber and intelligence. When we talk about changing people’s consciousness, I aim for what I call the Shabbat table.

“Imagine I want to plant an idea in your head. If I come to you and just rant and repeat myself, whether over the phone or through the media, you’ll feel like I’m smothering you and get annoyed. It’s too obvious. Instead, I’ll study your intimate environment; who you have at Shabbat dinner, in your safest space. And the message I’m trying to convey will come from your wife and the people you trust the most.

Children protesting in the "sardine campaign" against crowded classrooms.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Why did you leave Tzur’s company?

“I love him. He did so much for me, and I for him. We worked very closely for 10 years; I did the most sensitive jobs for him and his partner, Amir Nami, both personal and professional. These are things I’ll take to my grave.

“One reason a rift formed between us was that over the last two years he really increased his media visibility. I turn the television on and see him appearing as a commentator for Rafi Reshef or Rina Mazliah. I look at [website] Mako and see one of his columns, while on Ilana Dayan’s show he gave the ‘behind the scenes’ of the election campaign.

“Election campaigns are our bread and butter – and there he is on one of the most popular shows talking about his work. This flies in the face of what we do. If Ronen wants to be a commentator, I wish him the best of luck on his professional journey, and I hope he remembers to quit on top.

You’re also doing interviews to promote yourself.

“I’m fully booked. But I’m speaking to you now following a very busy few months during which a certain person hired an investigator to follow me; he tried to ruin me in any way possible.

“A few months ago, I took on a new client in an unusual way. Somebody I used to do business with asked me to speak to a client who was looking for somebody like me. We spoke and I told my girlfriend straight away that this was an investigator. The conversation just didn’t seem right. There was no reason for him to seek me out.

“He told me that he wanted to help a mayor – without him knowing – who was campaigning for reelection; he wanted me to damage the rival candidates. So far so good. We scheduled another meeting where he was supposed to hand over some additional material. It ended with him trying to entrap me: He asked me to help him buy drugs. I told him: ‘I don’t touch that kind of stuff; don’t even mention it around me.’

“It isn’t normal that somebody you only met twice would ask you about something like that. I documented everything from that moment on. He asked me to start a local newspaper for smear campaigns. He would bring me information about a certain woman and say: ‘Mess with her. Finish her.’ I agreed. I set up a small paper. A mini-paper.

“Publishing a small paper takes a lot of work. I wanted to know how much they were willing to invest in project Ofer Rosenbaum. I asked the woman for comment. She told me it never happened. So I decided not to publish the paper. So he looked for the next stunt, put an envelope full of diamonds in front of me and said: ‘This is what I do. Maybe you’d like to buy some for your girlfriend? She looks like someone who’d do well selling diamonds. Precisely because she lacks experience.’

“The plan was to get my girlfriend involved and get us mixed up selling fake diamonds. It’s a long story; we put him through a number of tests and exposed him. Most importantly, we closed the circle and exposed the client who ordered the sting against us, a well-known figure. Since I do similar things, just not negligently and criminally like what they tried to do in my case, I can estimate that a project like the one they tried to pull would cost around 800,000 to 900,000 shekels.

What do you tell your children about your line of work? You aren’t making the world a better place for them.

“When my son was younger he’d ask me about my work, and I would tell him that I rescue people. These days he’d say I help people make the right decisions. Your starting assumption is that I’m always on the bad guys’ side. That’s not true. I started the ‘sardine campaign’ against crowded classrooms.”

Did you do this pro bono?

“No. It was through the National Parents Association. During COVID I organized campaigns, including ones for independent businesses. I don’t just work for bad. I worked pro-bono for Krembo Wings, [a youth movement that accepts children with severe disabilities]. They were facing foreclosure and we helped them raise money. I’ve done some things that help me soothe my conscience.”

Tzur’s office said in a statement: “We notified Rosenbaum about the termination of our commercial partnership due to actions we will not provide more details on out of respect for his family. In response he has chosen to malign the people who employed him for many years to cover up his actions.

“The Israeli market is small, and actions he is taking against those who cooperated with him will only damage him. ... In most of the cases that he took on, the identity of the person who hired our services was kept from him. In retrospect, this seems like a sound a decision in light of the information we’re receiving about his grave actions that raise questions about his judgment.”

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