Israeli lawmaker to PM: Dismiss US envoy over aide scandal

Israeli lawmaker to PM: Dismiss US envoy over aide scandal David Keyes accompanies Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to a Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

JERUSALEM (AP) — An Israeli opposition lawmaker on Sunday called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to dismiss his ambassador to the United States for failing to report sexual assault allegations against a top Netanyahu aide, ballooning an already embarrassing scandal for the Israeli leader.

Karin Elharrar of the centrist Yesh Atid party said Ron Dermer should be recalled from Washington for not reporting the warnings he received about David Keyes, Netanyahu’s spokesman to foreign media. She also lashed out at Netanyahu himself for staying mum on an issue that has engulfed his close associates.

“His silence is thundering. I would expect from the prime minister a clear condemnation, if not at least a mention that the allegations were being looked into,” Elharrar told The Associated Press. “Who if not the prime minister should be an example on this matter? It’s time that this issue of sexual harassment be at the top of his agenda.”

Last week, Julia Salazar, a candidate for New York’s state senate, accused Keyes of sexually assaulting her five years ago. Wall Street Journal reporter Shayndi Raice tweeted she too had a “terrible encounter” with Keyes before he became Netanyahu’s spokesman. She described him as a “predator” and someone who had “absolutely no conception of the word ‘no.’”

At least a dozen other women have since come forward with varying allegations, some of which are said to have been committed since Keyes took up his current position in early 2016. Keyes, 34, denies the allegations, saying all “are deeply misleading and many of them are categorically false.” Keyes says he has taken a leave of absence amid the uproar to try and clear his name.

But the scandal has since spread to the rest of Netanyahu’s inner circle, which has previously been rocked with accusations of sexual improprieties. Natan Eshel, a former top aide, was forced to resign in 2012 after allegations emerged that he harassed and intimidated a woman in the prime minister’s office, including taking pictures up her skirt. Earlier this year, Netanyahu’s son Yair came under fire after a recording emerged of him joyriding at taxpayer expense to Tel Aviv strip clubs and making misogynistic comments about strippers, waitresses and other women.

Over the weekend, Dermer, who was perhaps Netanyahu’s closest associate before taking office in Washington, confirmed he was warned in late 2016 by New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, then of the Wall Street Journal, about Keyes’ aggressive behavior toward women. The New York Times reported that Stephens, who said he had barred Keyes from visiting the Wall Street Journal opinion section because of harassment complaints women there made against him, warned Dermer that “Keyes posed a risk to women in Israeli government offices.”

Dermer said he did not report this further since he did not consider the harassment allegations criminal.

But Elharrar noted in a formal letter to Netanyahu that Dermer was unqualified to judge this. Under Israeli law, sexual harassment is a crime and public servants are required to report any knowledge of it. Dermer, as an Israeli ambassador, is subject to its laws even on American soil, Elharrar said, and therefore she demanded his dismissal since “it is unreasonable that someone holding such a prominent position would violate the law so blatantly.”

“I’m sure that if it were any other diplomatic or even gossipy issue he would have reported it further,” she told the AP. “We need to make clear that the issue of sexual harassment is no less important.”

Netanyahu’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Media reports in recent days have included the testimonies of various women detailing what they called aggression on the part of Keyes, where in some cases he coerced them into sexual acts. The New York Times reported that in addition to Stephens’ move, some organizations Keyes worked for himself took measures to keep him away from interns because of his history of unwanted advances.

Salazar, a Democratic socialist who went on win her New York state senate primary last week after an ugly campaign that scrutinized her past, said she only decided to go public with her allegations against Keyes after a conservative news outlet planned to out her.

Netanyahu has yet to comment on the affair and made no mention of it in comments given at his weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday.

Michal Rozin, a legislator with the opposition Meretz party, said his silence could be interpreted as tolerance of the alleged acts and she demanded he take a clear stance against sexual assault and harassment.

Rozin, who formerly headed Israel’s umbrella organization for victims of sexual violence before elected to parliament, has appealed to Israel’s Civil Service Commissioner asking for the allegations against Keyes to be investigated because of the “serious concern of serial behavior.” She demanded Dermer’s conduct be examined as well.

It’s not the first case the #MeToo phenomenon has erupted in Israeli public life. Last year, shortly after the allegations against Harvey Weinstein rocked Hollywood and sparked a flurry of allegations in other American industries, a senior Israeli TV journalist revealed on air that Israeli media mogul and International Olympic Committee member Alex Gilady had made an “indecent” proposal to her during a job interview 25 years ago. A well-known columnist then added that Gilady exposed himself to her during a 1999 business meeting at his home and two other women later came forward saying Gilady had raped them.

He denied the rape accusations, but Gilady, a former sports executive at NBC, soon stepped down as president of the local Keshet broadcasting company he founded.

When veteran Israeli media personality Gabi Gazit addressed the allegations dismissively on his daily radio show, it prompted Dana Weiss — another prominent local TV journalist — to accuse him of just such behavior. Weiss said Gazit had randomly kissed her on the mouth during chance encounters in TV studios. Gazit denied the accusations but three other women come forward with similar stories and he was forced to take leave from his show.

Even before the #MeToo era, Israel confronted the sexual assault of women by powerful men. A former president, Moshe Katsav, was sentenced and jailed for rape.