Israeli prime minister's aide on leave amid harassment probe

REPORTING FROM JERUSALEM -- A top official in the Israeli prime minister's office has taken a 10-day leave of absence while officials investigate allegations he was involved in sexual harassment.

Suspicions of misconduct by Natan Eshel, including taking inappropriate cellphone pictures, were reported to senior law enforcement authorities by other top members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office, but Netanyahu himself reportedly was not involved in the case.

Eshel has denied any wrongdoing but took a leave after being cautioned by the Civil Service Commission's disciplinary department that he could be suspended if he didn't volunteer to take time off. The commission is investigating the accusation.

The alleged victim, a 35-year-old woman identified in the media only as R, has refused to file a complaint and has appealed to Atty. Gen. Yehuda Weinstein through her attorneys for an exemption from testifying, citing concerns about her privacy.

It is not clear at this point if the alleged victim, who says she is willing to petition the Supreme Court to fight a summons, will eventually have to testify. 

At least 40% of Israeli women have been sexually harassed in their place of work, two-thirds of them more than once, according to a survey by the Industry and Trade Ministry.

Israeli law obliges employers to investigate any report of workplace misconduct brought to their attention, regardless of a formal complaint. In this case, the state is the employer.

This is the latest scandal involving sexual misconduct to rock Israel's political system. Last month, former President Moshe Kaztav began a seven-year jail term after a rape conviction. Several years ago, former Justice Minister Haim Ramon was convicted of indecent conduct after kissing a female soldier assigned to the prime minister's office.

Although not widely known outside political circles, Eshel is considered an influential aide in the prime minister's office.

The accusations against him could affect a wider issue: the appointment of Israel's next air force commander. Yohanan Locker, Netanyahu's military secretary, was said to be the prime minister's favored candidate to take over command of the air force after current chief Ido Nehushtan steps down in April. Locker was reportedly one of three officials to voice suspicions against Eshel, and some speculate that the accusations could disrupt his standing.

The appointment had already caused some tension after media reports said Netanyahu was pressuring Genny Gantz, Israel's chief of staff, on the issue. Gantz's favored candidate, Amir Eshel, who evidently has no family connection to Natan Eshel, is believed to object to carrying out any preemptive strike against Iran's nuclear program.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak will begin interviewing candidates for the position in coming days, Israeli media reported Monday.

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-- Batsheva Sobelman 

 
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