Who Knew What When About the Helicopter Crash?

PM, IDF claim Netanyahu wasn't told until his son's birthday party was in full swing. But there are grounds for skepticism.

On Monday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threw a 19th birthday party for his son Yair at his official residence in Jerusalem.

About 100 guests, most of them friends of Netanyahu and his wife, were invited to the bash, which included catered food, a photographer and a disc jockey. According to the prime minister's media advisor, Shaya Degal, the Netanyahus, not the Prime Minister's Office, covered the expenses.

The guests were invited for 5:30 P.M. About two and a half hours earlier, all contact had been lost with an air force helicopter engaged in a training exercise in Romania. But when the first guests arrived, Netanyahu did not yet know that there had been a fatal crash that killed all six crew members.

Based on inquiries with several officials in the Prime Minister's Bureau and the Israel Defense Forces, as well as other people familiar with the course of events, Netanyahu was first informed of the crash shortly after 6 P.M. In fact, Netanyahu did not get the news until long after President Shimon Peres did - because Peres' diplomatic advisor, Mody Efraim, happened to be in Bucharest, in order to prepare for the president's upcoming visit, senior IDF officers explained.

At about 4:30 P.M., after hearing from Israeli embassy personnel in Bucharest that contact had been lost with the chopper, Efraim called Peres' military secretary, Brig. Gen. Hasson Hasson, and asked him to check with the IDF. Hasson did so, learned the report was true and immediately informed Peres.

Senior army officials said that only at about 5 P.M. was IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi first officially informed that the chopper had gone missing. But the report was then checked and rechecked, so only at 6 P.M. did the army inform the military secretaries of Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

Shortly thereafter, the army officially informed Peres' military secretary too.

Barak's office, however, disputed this account. It said the defense minister was first informed of the incident at 4:15 P.M. - two hours before Netanyahu's bureau said the prime minister was informed.

Officials in Netanyahu's bureau said his military secretary, Yohanan Locker, gave him the news moments after it received word from the army.

"Locker got the report at 6:10, and six minutes later, he informed the prime minister," said one. Other staffers corroborated this timetable.

PM leaves the party

A few minutes after that, they added, Netanyahu left the party and headed for his private office, where he called various IDF officers for briefings.

The staffers said the IDF asked Netanyahu not to tell anyone else about the crash, since the crew members' families had not yet been notified. Therefore, Netanyahu returned to the party and made a show of business as usual. At about 7:30 P.M., he received additional updates on the situation in Romania.

But people who spoke with some of the party guests told a different story. They claimed that far from keeping a discreet silence, Netanyahu did tell some of the guests about the crash. One guest claimed to have heard the news from Netanyahu even before 6 P.M. - which, according to the prime minister's staff, is when he first heard it.

The IDF Spokesman's Office issued an official statement yesterday that largely corroborates the account by Netanyahu's staff. According to the statement, air force headquarters received an initial report on the crash "at about 5 P.M."

Over the next 40 minutes this report was double-checked, and at 5:40 P.M., Ashkenazi's office was told conclusively that contact with the chopper had been lost. After Ashkenazi clarified certain details with other senior army officers, his bureau chief began informing the political leadership.

"The defense minister's bureau was informed at 6 P.M., and the prime minister's bureau at 6:10 P.M.," the statement concluded.

But given that this was an exceptional incident, taking place far from home, and casualties were considered likely immediately, it seems highly probable that at the very least, high-ranking officers at air force headquarters and the General Staff's Operations Brigade, as well as in the bureaus of the relevant top brass, were informed long before 5 P.M.

Moreover, the Operations Brigade has a standard procedure for notifying senior government officials, via either their bureau chiefs or their military secretaries, of such incidents, usually within moments of when they break.

Thus it is likely that final confirmation was indeed delivered to Netanyahu's bureau only at 6:10 P.M.

But it would be very surprising to learn that during the preceding 70 minutes, nothing was said to the prime minister, or at least his military secretary.