The numerous scandals and investigations surrounding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have shaken up his staff and left him with a very small band of advisors. One after another, confidants and officials have left under the shadow of embarrassing affairs and criminal investigations. The exodus has reached a new height with the arrests of his close advisers: the Netanyahu family’s former personal spokesman Nir Hefetz and Communications Ministry Director General Shlomo Filber, who has worked very closely with Netanyahu for almost 20 years.
While Netanyahu is busy maneuvering between police investigators, hotel rooms all over the globe and nighttime dashes to the Knesset canteen, one of the things that blatantly stands out is the gang of young people surrounding him: advisers in their 20s who are part of the campaigns against threats from Iran on one side and threats to Netanyahu’s continued rule on the other.
The burden of running his governmental and political affairs is divided between these youngsters and the more veteran staff in the Prime Minister’s Bureau. The staff has diverse backgrounds, hailing from places such as the elite special-operations unit where Netanyahu served, the business world and even the Ger Hassidic sect.
The team surrounding Netanyahu today was to a great extent created by their predecessors, who have already departed. Even before Hefetz and Filber were arrested, four of Netanyahu’s chiefs of staff left: Natan Eshel, who starred in the “upskirt” photos affair and sexual harassment case; Gil Shefer, who had the indecent acts case against him closed last year for a lack of evidence; Ari Harow, who was investigated in two corruption cases and subsequently turned state’s evidence against Netanyahu; and David Sharan, who is a suspect in the submarines affair alongside Netanyahu’s personal lawyer, cousin and close confidant David Shimron.
Perah Lerner, the prime minister’s adviser on Knesset affairs who admitted to a number of disciplinary offenses after suspicions that she was using her position to advance her husband’s public relations business, also resigned a year ago. The latest to abandon ship was Netanyahu’s spokesman Boaz Stembler, who exited without the cloud of criminal or other suspicions hovering over him but was questioned by the police about the case involving the telecom giant Bezeq after he left.
From the army to the premier’s office
Three of the new young advisers from what is known as Netanyahu’s “hive” met during their military service in the Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson’s Office: Netanyahu’s new spokeswoman Shir Cohen, 26; the his office’s digital and new media adviser Topaz Luk, 25; and the Likud’s new media adviser Jonatan Urich, 29. All three served in the army spokesperson’s office at the same time as Yair Netanyahu, the prime minister’s son, but were not thought to be his close friends at the time.
They also never imagined that within such a short time they would become some of the most important people pulling the strings behind the scenes in the Prime Minister’s Bureau. Netanyahu the father consults with them, trusts their opinions and proudly tells other world leaders how young they are. For someone who often says he does not have a mobile phone or computer out of fears of being recorded, Netanyahu is provided with a critical window on the world of Israeli public opinion as reflected by social networks by this trio.
Cohen was born in Rosh Ha’ayin in the center of the country and now lives in Jerusalem. She joined Netanyahu’s bureau in 2012, immediately after finishing her military service in the Israeli media branch of the spokesman’s office. Her first job was the assistant to Netanyahu’s director of communications, Liran Dan. At the same time she worked on and completed a degree in political science and communications. After Dan left, she became Stembler’s deputy and replaced him two months ago, after he left the position. Cohen has been called “professional, dedicated and businesslike” by many of the staff, but even though she has broken through the glass ceiling she still keeps a low profile.
Many were surprised to see a young woman alongside the prime minister in the official pictures of his meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in Davos in January, something that had been quite rare in Netanyahu’s office in the past. She is scheduled to meet with Trump again in Washington on Monday, during Netanyahu’s visit to the United States. Perhaps she will meet her American counterpart Hope Hicks there. Hicks, who resigned this week, is only three years older than Cohen. As the spokeswoman, Cohen does not deal with political or personal matters but handles all other official matters. Now that Netanyahu is under investigation she is in charge of sending out the message of “business as usual.”
Luk is from Ashkelon in Israel’s south and was one of the soldiers who founded the new media branch in the IDF Spokesperson’s Office when he served there from 2011 to 2014. During this time he met Yair Netanyahu, who was in the international media branch. He became Netanyahu’s new media adviser and the manager of the Likud’s digital election campaign, and he manages the prime minister’s official social media accounts. Instagram, Facebook and Twitter are now the main channels for Netanyahu to keep in touch with voters, and Luk has made them a bit less formal and more personal and humorous, more like a family affair – though sometimes also acerbic and aggressive. Luk also joins Netanyahu on some of his overseas trips and broadcasts his speeches live, as well as filming videos in which Netanyahu presents his achievements directly to the voters.
Luk’s friend Urich comes from a religious family from Kfar Sava and now lives in Tel Aviv. He studied at the Har Etzion Yeshiva and worked as the editor of the IDF website for five years before moving to the office of the prime minister. Urich is considered extremely close to Netanyahu and his family. He writes responses for Netanyahu, they go over them together and then Urich reports back on the public’s response and changes in opinion. Urich has also been credited with Netanyahu’s switch in his approach to the case of Hebron shooter Elor Azaria – from an official, statesmanlike position to a more militant and political one. Urich is also known for his cynical tweets against Netanyahu’s opponents.
The responsible adult
Netanyahu is only surrounded by youngsters armed with keyboards. The responsible adult in charge is his Chief of Staff Yoav Horowitz.