Back in the Limelight

First it was the nanny, then the personal secretary and now the housekeeper in the Netanyahu household. But despite the uproar over the current affair, it's business as usual for the premier.

"They have marked me," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is telling his confidants these days. By "they," he means the media - particularly, the country's largest-circulation newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, but also its rival, Maariv.

This is a replay of what happened during Netanyahu's first stint as prime minister, from 1996 to 1999, when the two papers decided halfway through his term that they had had enough of him. At the time, there was no Israel Hayom - the freebie paper owned by U.S. billionaire Sheldon Adelson - to defend him. Now, less than a year into the present term, wife Sara and her relationships with other people have returned to haunt him.

First it was the nanny, then the personal secretary and now it's the housekeeper. The pattern of behavior described by these people seems to be the same: The women who file the complaints are always of a lower status, and they portray their employer as capricious, short-tempered and obsessed with cleanliness and order, and prone to outbursts of anger and verbal abuse. According to the complaint filed in court by the housekeeper, Lillian Peretz, Ms. Netanyahu is not especially generous, either.

There are such women, but only one of them is the wife of the prime minister, and that makes it legitimate for the media to deal with that woman's behavior. Even Netanyahu understands this. His request at a joint press conference in Berlin on Monday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel - "Aim your fire at me, leave my wife and children alone" - was meant more for domestic consumption and as a demonstration of sensitivity. Nor was it accidental that he mentioned his children; he is apparently convinced that his elder son, Yair, now in the army, is next in line.

Hiding Sara Netanyahu from the public eye since the election, and indeed since long before, was a key mission of Netanyahu's bureau, in its various personnel configurations. The total secrecy in which she is wrapped and her ongoing silence are rare in Western terms. Her first and only public appearance was two months ago, at a charity event sponsored by the Academy of Music and Dance in Jerusalem. Mrs. Netanyahu spoke at the event, but the media were denied entry.

But there is no need to get carried away: No one has proven yet that Netanyahu's performance as premier, or his ability to make decisions, chair discussions and guide policy, has been adversely affected by his wife's behavior. In his first 10 months of this term, he made both good and bad decisions. He zigzagged on some issues, but in matters of state he went further than anyone once thought possible. At the same time, it's hardly a secret that, with regard to staff appointments, the prime minister's wife has long been involved, in almost every case. The most senior appointee, Natan Eshel, Netanyahu's bureau chief, holds that sensitive post only because of her.

Two years ago, when he was still in the opposition, Netanyahu wanted to add to his staff an individual (whose name is known to Haaretz) who had the qualifications for the specific open position. This person also wanted the job. But when he discovered that he would have to be interviewed by Sara Netanyahu as well, he decided to forgo the honor.

The huge headline and two-page spread that Yedioth devoted to Lillian Peretz's suit last Friday caught Netanyahu and his wife by surprise, although they'd known for weeks that Peretz was demanding compensation for years of alleged abuse. Meanwhile, a mediator shuttled back and forth between Peretz and the Netanyahus. Apparently, the couple could have brought the matter to an end quietly by paying, but they refused.

If the case goes to trial and they lose, the public damage to Netanyahu will be enormous. He and his wife will be vilified, worn down - and made to pay, too. Even if they win, the details that will emerge in the trial will not do their image any good. And if in the middle of it all, a settlement is worked out, which is naturally what will happen, the question will be why they didn't go for that option in the first place.

Netanyahu's aides went out of their way this week to deliver the following message: His work is not being affected by this mess; he hasn't canceled even a single meeting. Even on that black morning, last Friday, he attended an important security meeting and followed his regular schedule. On Sunday he chaired a cabinet meeting; on Monday he went to Germany. Sara Netanyahu also went to work - as a psychologist for the Jerusalem Municipality - as usual. In fact, say the prime minister's close aides, she has displayed surprising sangfroid since the start of the affair.

The damage that is being caused to Netanyahu is not political in the party or coalition sense. His coalition is more stable than ever and will remain so for the foreseeable future. The problem is the loss of respect for the prime minister, which could trickle down from the media, to the politicians and the public, and then spill over, causing a possible political backlash. That was the experience of his predecessor in office, Ehud Olmert. First because of the Second Lebanon War, then because of the police investigations against him, until one fine morning someone in the coalition decided to bring him down. That someone was Ehud Barak.

Rare species

After Israeli ministers finished interrupting Merkel in her joint press conference with Netanyahu in Berlin, they paid a call on the Israeli ambassador, Yoram Ben-Zeev. First to arrive at the envoy's residence were Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and Industry and Trade Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer. Another 10 people also appeared in the diplomat's salon. The following dialogue - which appears here almost in full - took place between Ben-Eliezer and Lieberman, as documented by someone who was there.

Ben-Eliezer: "The Foreign Ministry needs to look for unifying, not divisive elements. You are breaking the mold, the policy of the ministry as it was built up over decades. If you weren't my friend, I would make shawarma out of you."

Lieberman: "You are stuck in the traditional Jewish approach, always wanting to please the lord and master."

Ben-Eliezer: "Anti-Israeli television series are broadcast every other day in Egypt and Jordan. Why don't you get angry with them?"

Lieberman: "The difference is that the Egyptians and the Jordanians do not say that [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad is their best friend, and they do not attack Israel's president and prime minister day and night, like Turkey's prime minister does. It won't be long before you Mapainiks [members of the party that was the forerunner of Labor] are declared a rare species. You will be placed in the petting zoo in Bnei Ayish [a Negev community where a child was recently murdered], and even that will be too big for you."

Ben-Eliezer: "Why are you getting personal? When my grandson says things that are not germane, I tell him: Don't run away from the argument, try to be relevant."

Ambassador Ben-Zeev: "There is a very large Turkish minority in Germany. Not long ago, the prime minister of Turkey visited here. He addressed a gathering of his community and told them not to forsake their loyalty to their homeland."

Ben-Eliezer to Lieberman: "There, you see? And the Germans didn't go ballistic after that."

Lieberman: "Whoever who wants to be a lapdog has a perfect right. We have no choice in the Middle East. Sometimes you have to behave as if the boss has lost it."

Ben-Eliezer: "Germany does quite a bit of trade with Iran. Today we sat with the Germans for a whole day, and we are good friends. Even if there is criticism, you have to know how to express it ... The process of [Turkey's] disengagement from us started when they were pushed in the direction of the Arab world after the European Union did not accept them. We also helped them disengage, in an ugly way, in a series of events involving our leaders." (Ben-Eliezer was referring to the visit to Ankara by prime minister Olmert two days before the start of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza - timing that infuriated the Turks.)

Lieberman: "You're just afraid of them, all you want to do is placate and justify them."

Ben-Eliezer: "I am not afraid of anyone. I was wounded in wars. I just don't understand how cutting ourselves off from the Muslim world will serve our interests."

Beware the Baba

Shas is behaving as though every day is the Knesset's last. More than any other party in the coalition, Shas is running wild, grabbing, extorting, collecting. The more the ultra-Orthodox party gets, the bigger its appetite for more unnecessary jobs for its hacks, for more money for its yeshivas and for finding additional ways to wield religious coercion over the secular public. At the same time, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz are showing far-reaching generosity toward most of Shas's demands, as though the party were threatening to bolt the coalition at any moment. But Shas is more dependent on this government than either Labor or Yisrael Beiteinu.

Shas ministers, led by party chairman Eli Yishai, attended a meeting on Sunday of the ministerial committee on legislation, which discusses MKs' private bills. Yishai, making a rare appearance before the committee, came to push three such bills. A decision on the first, concerning a ban on the sale of bread during Passover, was deferred until next week. The second bill, which would exempt structures appended to synagogues from paying municipal property tax, was approved by the committee and was subsequently passed in a preliminary reading by the Knesset.

The third bill was headed: "Establishment of a center to perpetuate for generations the activity and heritage of the just and divine kabbalist Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira, the Baba Sali, of blessed and pious memory." Presented by Yishai and his colleagues Meshulam Nahari and Yaakov Margi, the proposal calls for a center - described in eight densely printed pages - with a "research institute" that will hold seminars, lectures and conferences, a library and an archive. Shas suggests that the funds for the project be taken from the state budget.

According to the proposal, "the establishment of the center is the least we can do to preserve the memory and heritage of the Baba Sali," who died in 1984. Another clause stipulates that the facility's 21-member board of directors, to be appointed mainly by rabbis, will in turn appoint an executive committee of seven, tasked with "determining the nature of the activities undertaken by the center, including the inculcation of the Baba Sali's heritage in school curricula."

Just what our education system needs: a little Baba Sali learning. Maybe there will be a matriculation exam in the subject, too.

Is this a meeting of the government of Israel or the government of Iran, one minister asked quietly. The committee rejected the bill. Now Yishai is threatening to bring the bill to a vote before the entire cabinet. It's said that anyone who abuses the memory of the Baba Sali is visited by a terrible curse, so the ministers would be well advised to think carefully before casting a vote against.