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.
Horowitz, 57, served in the elite special-operations unit Sayeret Matkal, where he knew Netanyahu on a superficial level, but their relationship developed later on. Horowitz worked in the business world, mostly in the automotive industry, and was the CEO of Avis Israel. He was always involved in the political scene. In 2005 Horowitz headed the umbrella group against the disengagement from the Gaza Strip. He also served as the head of Netanyahu’s primary campaign around the same time.
The daily Maariv reported that Horowitz was appointed to his present job in 2015 thanks to Hefetz and Eshel. Horowitz sees his role in the bureau as managing the staff and being responsible for their day-to-day functions as a coordinated and cohesive group, a model he certainly adopted from the business world. In addition, he is considered a central player in building relations with the present U.S. administration in Washington, including with Ambassador David Friedman, and is also the main point of contact with West Bank settlers and the ultra-Orthodox community.
Because of his close relations with the Netanyahu and his wife Sara, his work sometimes spills over from the office into the official residence. He tries to meet all the new employees at the Prime Minister’s Residence. For example, he met Shira Raban, the cleaner who is suing Sara Netanyahu for abuse. Horowitz does not plan on remaining in the public sector for too long, say some of those close to him; others add that he is “sick and tired of doing three jobs at the same time.” But Horowitz himself told TheMarker in 2016 that in his eyes the job of chief of staff is the “fulfillment of a dream” for which he decided to give up “a comfortable and pampered life and large sums of money.” He added that he has known Netanyahu for a long time and “respects him greatly as a leader and likes him very much as a person.”
Another central figure in the office today is Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman, 58. He is originally from Tel Aviv and now lives to the south of the city in Nes Tziona. Braverman, who has known Netanyahu since 1992, was appointed in 2016 after his predecessor Avichai Mendelblit was named attorney general. Braverman worked for eight years in Nes Tziona’s city hall as the city’s spokesman and as the CEO of its cultural center complex. He has a master’s degree in law, and was active in a number of Likud election campaigns.
In June it was reported that he tried to convince members of the Judicial Appointments Committee to promote his wife, Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court judge Nava Braverman, to a higher court. He was furious about the reports and vehemently denied them, saying “he regretted that in 2017 they are trying to ascribe the advancement of a woman on her husband.” Rumors in Nes Tziona say he is considering running for mayor in the upcoming municipal election.
The director general of the Prime Minister’s Office since 2015 is Eli Groner. A religious Jew, he is 47 and lives in the West Bank settlement of Elazar. He previously served as the economic attaché in the Israeli Embassy in Washington and before that, in a senior position at the consulting firm McKinsey. Groner is not considered to be close to the Netanyahus personally and he focuses on the ongoing management of the PMO. He got the job at the recommendation of the Israeli ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer.
Another person in the bureau considered close to Dermer is David Keyes, Netanyahu’s spokesman for the foreign media and foreign relations. Born in California, he is in his 30s and was appointed to his post in 2016 after his predecessor, Mark Regev, was appointed Israel’s ambassador to the United Kingdom. Before working for Netanyahu, Keyes headed the American organization Advancing Human Rights. He also worked at the conservative Shalem Center in Jerusalem, which is partially funded by the American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. He also worked for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, now headed by former Foreign Ministry director general Dore Gold, who is close to Netanyahu.
When Keyes’ appointment was announced, a young American woman accused him on Facebook of sexual assault. Keyes vehemently denied the accusations, saying at the time there was “absolutely no coercion” involved in the encounter.
Part of Keyes’ role is to contribute to shaping Israel’s media strategy. For example, he is the one who proposed that Netanyahu display a fragment of the Iranian drone shot down over Israel at the Munich Security Conference last month.
Close to Sara
Lerner, Netanyahu’s liason in the corridors of the Knesset, was replaced by Rivka Paluch, a ultra-Orthodox woman from the Ger Hassidic community. She is around 60 years old with seven children and lives in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak. She was previously the prime minister’s adviser on relations with the Haredi community, a position she has held since Ariel Sharon was prime minister. She is considered to be very close to Sara Netanyahu.
Paluch testified on behalf of the defense at the trial of Haim Ramon, who was convicted for indecent behavior for kissing a soldier working in the PMO against her will. The court later decided her testimony was false and an “exaggeration.” She was responsible for hiring Raban, the cleaner suing Sara Netanyahu, and dealing with many similar matters concerning the Prime Minister’s Residence.
Working alongside Paluch in the Knesset on behalf of Netanyahu is Yair Kasparius, a former sports reporter at Yedioth Ahronoth who worked for Hefetz at the newspaper. Hefetz brought Kasparius with him to the Prime Minister’s Office as his personal assistant when the former became Netanyahu’s media adviser.
In 2016, Channel 2 reported that Kasparius had run up huge deep debts. Kasparius’ lawyer said in response at the time that he “was not bankrupt but just an ordinary citizen who against his will was forced to file a request for insolvency and protection from creditors after his attempts to reach specific agreements failed.” The lawyer said some of the debts came from investments in a failed business enterprise before he was hired by the PMO and have no connection to his present work. “Not only has Mr. Kasparius not hidden his financial situation, he has even declared it in an official manner because he is an employee of the Prime Minister’s Office,” said his lawyer.
Employees of the PMO and the Prime Minister’s Bureau are not the only people who work with Netanyahu. There are also other advisers and Likud party activists. The political side of the “hive” includes political adviser Omri Akunis, the younger brother of Science, Technology and Space Minister Ofir Akunis. The younger Akunis is in his 30s and in the past was a coordinator of the Young Likud. Working alongside him is his brother’s former spokesman, Shai Hayek, who is now Netanyahu’s spokesman for political matters. Hayek joined the staff in 2014 and is considered the contact person for the freely distributed newspaper Israel Hayom, owned by Adelson.
Hayek is considered to the “mover and shaker” of the bunch and runs the ongoing contacts with senior public servants, as well as with ministers and Knesset members. Last week he was asked by the Israel Securities Authority to testify concerning the Bezeq case, known as Case 4000. He took a few days off for the questioning but is now back at work.
No less important is Hany Bleivis, the bureau chief of the Likud chairman. Like Paluch, Bleivis is also very close to Sara Netanyahu and some call her the “watchdog” for the Netanyahus inside the party. On her Facebook page, Bleivis calls herself the “tea and coffee server in the Likud”; the page is packed with pictures of Sara Netanyahu. In the past she testified against Lilian Peretz, a former housekeeper employed by the Prime Minister’s Residence and who also sued the Netanyahus for abuse. Party activists who want to endear themselves to the first couple – and possibly even be honored with a meeting – must first go through Bleivis.
Many others work in the outer circles in Netanyahu’s bureau, the PMO, official residence and Likud party. But at a time when any employee who works in close contact with the prime minister may be summoned by the police to answer questions, the present team is now on the front lines as Netanyahu and his wife are becoming even more suspicious and isolated than ever. Preserving the daily routine at the height of the battle for survival has been placed on their shoulders.