By Jeffrey Heller
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - 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 attache 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 originally said no visit had taken place, a denial few in Israel were buying.
But on Thursday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko appeared to take a more ambiguous line, telling reporters: "I am not saying yes or no, I am just saying I don't have any information."
The air defense 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 nuclear facilities if Israel was to launch air strikes.
Reports of the Moscow visit followed the interception by Russian warships of a cargo ship off West Africa last month. Media reports, denied by Russia, said the Arctic Sea was carrying to Iran S-300 missiles that were detected by Israel.
Netanyahu has not responded directly to the reported secret trip. His office issued a new statement about Monday's disappearance, pinning the misinformation on his military attache, to try to end the barrage of criticism.
"The prime minister was busy with confidential and classified activities," the statement said.
"The military attache, 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."
Israeli newspapers described Netanyahu's office, filled with what they said were bickering advisers, as a "cuckoo's nest" and "fool's paradise."
(Additional reporting by Moscow bureau, Editing by Angus MacSwan)