Jerusalem: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drew the wrath of Israel`s most influential newspapers on Thursday over what they described as lies issued by his office about a secret flight to Russia.
Netanyahu`s first major media fiasco since taking office six months ago began with a simple question many Israelis, using their leader`s nickname, asked on Monday: “Where`s Bibi?”
Explaining why he had disappeared from public view for a day, a statement issued on Monday by the Prime Minister`s Office quoted his military attaché as saying that Netanyahu had visited a security installation in Israel.
Israeli media reported he had toured a facility belonging to the Mossad intelligence agency.
But on Wednesday, Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth reported that Netanyahu had, in fact, flown secretly to Moscow to voice concern over the possible sale of Russian anti-aircraft missiles to Iran.
Keeping sensitive matters under wraps, newspaper commentators said, could be acceptable on grounds of national security.
But a false cover story? Israeli media, which have long abided by military censorship rules that force them to sit on security-related news, were outraged.
"Secrets and lies," complained identical headlines in Yedioth Ahronoth and its main competitor, the Maariv daily.
"Look what happened to the Prime Minister on the way to Russia -- his credibility, which was never high, was dealt a sharp blow," Maariv political commentator Ben Caspit wrote.
Even after the cover version was blown, a spokesman for Netanyahu, -- stopping short of denying the report -- said the earlier official explanation of his whereabouts still held.
In Moscow, Russian officials said no visit had taken place, a denial few in Israel were buying.
The advanced air defence missiles issue has been a sore point in relations between Moscow and Israel, which has lobbied Russia to pull away from selling them to Iran, saying they could protect Iranian nuclear facilities if Israel was to launch air strikes against them.
Israeli newspapers, however, turned their focus to another area of conflict -- Netanyahu`s own office, where they said a turf war has been raging among his advisers.
Yedioth Ahronoth called it a "cuckoo`s nest”. Maariv termed the prime minister`s bureau a "fool`s paradise”.
Netanyahu has not responded directly. His office issued a new statement about Monday`s disappearance, pinning the misinformation on his military attaché, to try to end the barrage of criticism.
"The Prime Minister was busy with confidential and classified activities," the statement said.
"The military attaché, who was not in touch with the Prime Minister at that time, acted on his independent initiative in order to defend that activity, and did this through a statement that was sent to his media adviser with the best of intentions”.