Israeli "domestic issues" take on new meaning

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.)

The Israeli public first heard about the suit in a screamingly large front-page headline in the country’s biggest newspaper. “Sara abused me, humiliated and exploited me,” the Yediot Aharonoth newspaper announced in revealing Peretz’s allegations earlier this month.

The legal content of the suit is perhaps less interesting to most Israelis than its allegation that Sara is a little unbalanced and that she shouts down her staff, the prime minister’s staff and Bibi himself daily. According to Peretz, Sara refers to herself as “the mother of the nation.”

Last week, Peretz complained to her local police station that she had received a threatening phone call from a man who told her to “end this whole thing in 12 hours, [or] you will be harmed personally. This comes from Bibi.”

The prime minister’s office said the call certainly didn’t come from Bibi.

During Netanyahu’s first term, his family life was often in the news. Sara, a former flight attendant who is now a psychologist, was accused by former staffers of abusing them and of excessive demands for cleanliness in handling the couple’s two sons.

In his years out of office, Netanyahu says privately, he learned many lessons about how to handle leaks from his cabinet and the demands of squabbling politicians. Until last week, he’d also learned how to keep a lid on potential controversy surrounding his third wife.

But Israeli politics is always more complex than it looks. In this case, the relentless promotion of Peretz’s case by Yediot may have more than just a bit to do with a fierce circulation war the newspaper is fighting with a free daily that backs Netanyahu.

Certainly it’s an opportunity for those who oppose the prime minister’s policies to get in a jab or two. In the Maariv newspaper, columnist Ben Caspit wrote that Bibi ought to resign.

“The fact that he permits that problematic woman [Sara] to decide, to appoint, to fire, to upset, to dictate and to apply pressure on organizations in their entirety renders him unfit” for office, Caspit wrote.

The criticism of Netanyahu is somewhat disproportionate, given the manner in which Israeli politics is generally conducted — it’s riven with corruption, egotism and public speeches which are little more than grandiose hissy-fits. If Caspit thinks the behavior of a politico’s wife disqualifies him from the public’s trust, perhaps he hasn’t looked at how Israel’s politicians behave. That’s the real unbecoming conduct.