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Israeli "domestic issues" take on new meaning

Alleged abuse of staff by Netanyahu's third wife opens him up to political attack.

Madonna (2nd L) poses with Sara and Benjamin Netanyahu at the prime minister's official residence in Jerusalem Sept. 4, 2009. (Reuters)

JERUSALEM — Billions of dollars in aid, bulging frequent-flier accounts for U.S. diplomats, and several thousand dead ought to be proof enough that the Middle East peace process has churned through the last decade and a half without getting anywhere.

But if you need more evidence, here it is: The Israeli Prime Minister’s wife is still allegedly screaming at her housekeeper.

When I arrived in Jerusalem in 1996, Benjamin Netanyahu had just been elected to lead Israel for the first time. The Oslo Peace Process had been derailed by the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and a spate of Hamas suicide bombings. And all was not, apparently, well in the Netanyahu home.

One of the first articles I wrote was for a British tabloid, The Daily Mail. It told the sad tale of a young South African girl who alleged that Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, screamed at her for burning some soup, and that this was part of a long process of verbal abuse during her six months of employment. Another former nanny emerged to allege that she had been half-starved while working for the Netanyahus, being allowed one tomato a day and an egg every two days.

Fast forward to the second term of Bibi, as he’s known, now approaching the end of its first year. The Prime Minister has pulled the wool over the eyes of the White House with a tendentious promise to freeze building in Israeli settlements. Things are quiet in the West Bank, thanks to Palestinian complacency and large amounts of U.S. aid.

But they are not so quiet in Netanyahu’s swank villa in Caesarea, an ancient town on the Mediterranean coast and home to many of Israel’s richest people. (It has the country’s only golf course. Say no more.)

Lilian Peretz, 44, filed a lawsuit in the Tel Aviv Labor Court last week alleging that she was frequently humiliated by Sara Netanyahu. The suit claims Sara commanded Peretz to shower several times a day to maintain a “sterile” environment in the villa and would call her with complaints at all hours — once phoning her at 2 a.m. to tell her a pillow had been incorrectly covered.

Peretz claims she was paid below minimum wage throughout her six years with the Netanyahus and was forced to work on the Jewish Sabbath, despite being a religiously observant Jew. The family’s bottled water was barred to her, so she had to make do with drinking from a faucet.

Her suit demands $80,000 in compensation, back pay and emotional damages.

The Prime Minister’s office said this week the lawsuit was “full of lies and defamation,” and that it was part of a campaign by Netanyahu’s political rivals to turn attention from his politics (which he thinks are rather successful) to his lifestyle (which, as a man with two homes and a penchant for cigars, is rather more luxurious than that of the average Israeli voter.)