Nathan Eshel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s confidant and his former bureau chief of staff and the man behind a leaked recording with the potential to damage Netanyahu’s standing with his base in the crucial final days of the election, has no official role in the Prime Minister’s Office or the Israeli government.
When he writes op-eds in support of the prime minister, he asks to be humbly described as “a close friend of the Netanyahu family.”
But to those in the know, Eshel is still very much Netanyahu’s man – and perhaps the most powerful, strategic and fiercely loyal of the premier’s advisers and fixers. He may no longer have an official title or government salary after he was forced to resign as the PMO’s chief of staff following an explosive 2012 sexual harassment scandal, but he is far more than a friend of the family.
So the revelation Saturday night of the recording of Eshel sharing the unvarnished opinion that “hate is what unites” the Likud party and making racist generalizations about Netanyahu’s Mizrahi voters hit the headlines as a sharp counterpunch to Likud’s recent efforts to damage the standing of Netanyahu’s chief rival, Benny Gantz.
In the taped conversation with someone he was screening as a potential political consultant, Eshel implied that the “non-Ashkenazi” public loves a criminal, which is why Netanyahu’s pending indictments weren’t hurting him among his electorate but were in fact helping him. Eshel said that one of Netanyahu’s ministers, Miri Regev, is a “beast” who nonetheless is effective in speaking to the “non-Ashkenazi” Likud voters.
These voters, he said with a measure of disgust and condescension, don’t necessarily support politicians who are interested in “what is good for the country,” but instead cast their ballot “to rob and to be a man.”
This group, Eshel said, “hates everything,” and so a successful political strategy would involve fomenting hatred because “hatred is what unites our camp.”
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Regev, usually the first to jump to Netanyahu’s defense, was uncharacteristically silent following the publication of the recording, later saying Eshel called to apologize and that he does not speak for anyone, "most certainly not the prime minister.”
Netanyahu also tweeted: “I called Nathan Eshel and made it clear that his comments are improper and unacceptable by me. He immediately apologized. Likud is the home of all parts of Israeli society and will always be.”
Eshel responded on Sunday by saying his comments were taken out of context, adding that he’s “a proud grandfather of Moroccan grandchildren.”
Likud spokesmen said that Eshel’s “personal opinion” had no relevance to the campaign or to Netanyahu. But Likud's statement means very little to those who understand exactly how tightly Eshel and Netanyahu’s careers are intertwined.
Eshel, a former IDF Lieutenant Colonel, dabbled in religious Zionist politics and parlayed his burgeoning friendship with both Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu into a job at Sheldon Adelson’s Israel HaYom. His relationship with the family grew to the point where he formally crossed into their political camp, joining the prime minister’s inner circle during and after the campaign that marked Netanyahu’s return to politics in 2009. Eshel was appointed as Netanyahu's chief of staff in 2010.
Former minister Shalom Simhon said in 2013 that Eshel’s commitment to Netanyahu was unbreakable and that he would “never betray his boss. Never. His entire life purpose is to serve his boss. He can be your friend, sure, but if it’s a choice between your friendship and Netanyahu, you know what his choice will be."
The unbreakable loyalty goes both ways. Netanyahu did his best to shield Eshel from sexual harassment accusations, when one of the employees at the PMO's alleged that Eshel had stalked and spied on her email and text messages, and most shockingly, taken upskirt photos of her with his cellphone, as well as of other women in the bureau.
Netanyahu was furious when he learned that three officials in his office had backed the employee’s complaints against Eshel.
The officials included his then-Director of Communications Yoaz Hendel, who exposed the charges to the attorney general without telling the prime minister first, and Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser. The scandal drove a wedge between Netanyahu and the two aides, who later became Kahol Lavan lawmakers.
The employee never testified and no criminal charges were filed against Eshel, who confessed to inappropriate conduct under a plea bargain that forbade him from seeking any civil service positions in the future.
Following the incident, Eshel’s work for Netanyahu has been unofficial, but has never really ceased, despite periodic grumbling from government watchdog organizations about his role.