Is Netanyahu facilitating rape culture in Israel?

Is Netanyahu facilitating rape culture in Israel?
Comment: Netanyahu's silence - and even acceptance - of staff members accused, investigated or charged with sex crimes sets a frightening precedent, writes David Sheen.
7 min read
14 Sep, 2018
A pattern seems to have emerged for Netanyahu staff accused of sex crimes [Getty]
Israeli officials came to learn that an employee of Prime Minister Netanyahu, someone whose job regularly put them in close quarters with the premier, was suspected of sex crimes. The worker was not fired, only distanced from Netanyahu's inner ring, and retained in some capacity.

The preceding paragraph was written about the events of the last 24 hours, after Netanyahu's spokesman David Keyes took a leave of absence, in the wake of sex assault allegations against him from multiple women.

Sadly, though, these words could also have been written about any number of individuals who have worked for Netanyahu in the last decade.

The first incident that we know about dates back to April 2011. At that time, one of Netanyahu's personal drivers, Ilan Shmuel, was charged with sex crimes against a minor. The prime minister's office continued to employ him for another three years, until 2014, when Shmuel was arrested on suspicion of raping pre-pubescent girls for years - hundreds, perhaps thousands of times.

At the time, Netanyahu's office announced that "the worker was given a vacation".

An Israel Channel 11 report from 2016 notes that when criminal proceedings were initiated against Shmuel, he would show up to court in his government-issued Audi, wearing his government-issued earpiece.

In January 2017, a Jerusalem court convicted Shmuel on dozens of counts of rape, sodomy and indecent acts against seven girls, some as young as nine, over the course of more than two decades. He was sentenced to jail for 27 years, and fined nearly a million shekels.

Netanyahu's response to the accused sex criminals in his midst has been nothing short of accommodating

At Shmuel's sentencing, his lawyer told reporters: "My client insists on his innocence and will continue to fight for the truth."

Less than a year after Shmuel was first indicted, Netanyahu's chief of staff Natan Eshel was accused of taking photographs up the skirt of a female government employee - in the prime minister's actual offices.

According to then-cabinet secretary Zvi Hauser, the complainant told a co-worker that "with an iPhone, Eshel took embarrassing photos of her, sometimes under her skirt, and that these photographs became known to others in the office".

In February 2012, Eshel admitted to misconduct, resigned his post, and agreed never to work for the government again. Netanyahu publicly thanked Eshel for his "good work" and "important contribution to the successful work of the Israeli government".

That same month, a woman accused another Netanyahu confidante, Gil Shefer, of sexually assaulting her 15 years earlier. Because of the statute of limitations, no charges were filed against Shefer, and Netanyahu promptly appointed him to replace the departing Eshel as his new chief of staff.

The following year, new evidence against Shefer was submitted to Israel's then-Attorney-General. Shefer abruptly tendered his resignation, with Netanyahu's office denying that his departure had anything to do with the sex crime allegations against him.

Also in 2013 - although not even a year had passed since he had sworn off the civil service - Netanyahu tried to bring Natan Eshel back to negotiate a crucial political alliance with another hard-right political party. Public outcry and pushback from other parties forced Eshel to retreat from the limelight at that time. But in 2015, Israeli media revealed that despite his indignant denials, Eshel was once again secretly representing the prime minister at political meetings.

Freedom of information requests filed by a consumer rights NGO on Eshel's activities were rebuffed by Netanyahu's office. Netanyahu would later publish a Youtube video wishing Eshel a happy birthday, thanking him for his "tremendous friendship" and praising him as "a member of the family".

With Eshel at work again, Netanyahu now brought Shefer back onto the public payroll in 2015, appointing him as Israel's Honorary Consul to Japan.

In 2016, Shefer was again accused of sexual assault, by another woman. Late last year, however, police closed the case against Shefer, saying they lacked the evidence for a conviction.

What emerges is a pattern: Netanyahu employees are accused of sex crimes and are eventually forced to step down; only to be returned to positions of power.

Almost every single female member of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, says they have been the victim of sexual harassment or sexual assault

To be clear, rape culture is not only a problem in Netanyahu's inner sanctum, and sex crimes don't only plague his political camp.

A 2011 Israeli academic study found that while 90 percent of Israeli men consider forced sex with a stranger to be rape, a full 61 percent of Israeli men do not consider forced sex with an acquaintance to be rape.

A 2016 Israeli TV report found that almost every single female member of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, says they have been the victim of sexual harassment or sexual assault, with some saying these violations have occurred during their tenures in the Knesset, and even within the building itself.

Two months ago, Labor member of Knesset Eitan Broshi slapped the behind of a female legislator in his own party, Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin. According to Israeli news reports, Broshi "initially did not understand that his actions were problematic".

Soon after, Broshi apologised to Nahmias-Verbin. But a week and a half later, after a second woman accused Broshi of sexually harassing her 15 years earlier, Labor party leader Avi Gabbay suspended Broshi from the party, and called on him to retire.

In contrast to Gabbay's unequivocal condemnation, Netanyahu's response to the accused sex criminals in his midst has been nothing short of accommodating.

When the prime minister tapped David Keyes to be his foreign language spokesman in March 2016, sex assault accusations against the new hire were not long in coming.

Within mere days, Julia Salazar - now a New York State Senator-in-waiting - anonymously accused Keyes of forcing sex on her in 2013.

Keyes denied the charges, and went on to serve under Netanyahu's wing for the next two and a half years. According to reports, Keyes was under serious consideration to be Israel's next Ambassador to the United Nations.

In recent weeks, during her run for the Democratic nomination to represent Brooklyn in the New York State Assembly, Salazar's past came under intense scrutiny, and her allegations against Keyes resurfaced.

With a now-famous face and name behind her accusations, at least 
a dozen more women came forward with complaints of their own against Keyes.

Keyes called the string of accusations "false and misleading" and announced that he would "take time off". But since stepping down hours ago, additional evidence of Keyes' predatory behavior have surfaced.

In recent years, as a result of his actions, numerous right-wing groups Keyes is connected to - and even an organisation he himself ran - implemented new policies to protect female staff from unwelcome advances.

It is the responsibility of every country's leaders to set a positive example, to condemn sexual crimes in no uncertain terms

In 2013, after Keyes reportedly propositioned a number of Wall Street Journal employees in a "less than gentlemanly" manner, by his own admission, then-deputy editor of the paper's opinion section Bret Stephens banned Keyes from its offices and called him a "disgrace to men".

Stephens told The New York Times that in November 2016, he contacted Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer to warn him "that Mr Keyes posed a risk to women in Israeli government offices".

But according to Israel Channel 10, Dermer - considered Netanyahu's closest confidante - was the one who pushed the prime minister hardest, to appoint Keyes as his spokesman.

Within a month of his appointment, Keyes was allegedly harassing another woman, according to a report published last night in The Times of Israel.

Netanyahu's office has kept quiet on all of the allegations against Keyes, only acknowledging that he is on temporary leave.

That will not do.

In 2018, Israeli women and girls are forced to navigate a society that is consumed with misogyny, in which sexual predators perceive them as playthings for their amusement. Of course, this is also the case in every other part of the world, as well. But it is the responsibility of every country's leaders to set a positive example, to condemn sexual crimes in no uncertain terms, and exclude accused sex criminals from positions of power.

Instead, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu provides them with a creepy clubhouse to operate out of: his own office.

David Sheen is an independent journalist originally from Toronto, Canada and now based in Dimona, Israel. 

Follow him on Twitter: @davidsheen

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.