If Michelle Obama Behaved Like Sara Netanyahu, Congress Would Be Talking Impeachment

Israelis are shouldering the cost of the deplorable behavior at the Prime Minister's residence. Last week's ruling should bring heavy political consequences for the Netanyahus, but it won't.

Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer
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The Netanyahus. He also has grandchildren.
Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer

The Israeli Prime Minister’s residence is no White House. Though smaller and shabbier – at least by the standards of the current prime minister’s wife, Sara Netanyahu, who has publicly bemoaned its condition – it remains the residence of the head of government, the location where visiting dignitaries are hosted, and a place whose operation and maintenance is fully funded by Israeli taxpayers.

So it is very much the taxpayer’s business when a court ruling uses the word “abuse” to describe the manner in which employees are treated in this residence, especially when they are compensated for that abuse with money that is – once again – provided by the government from the pockets of taxpayers.

And indeed, last week, a Jerusalem Labor Court ruled that the former caretaker of the residence, Meni Naftali, had been subjected to intolerable employment conditions. The state was ordered to pay Naftali $42,500 for damages, emotional distress and violations of employment law, and to compensate him for court costs.

The perpetrator of the abuse was named in the 40-page decision – Sara Netanyahu. The judge found in Naftali's favor based on the testimony of multiple workers who demonstrated that "the conditions of employment in the residence were harmful due to the behavior of Mrs. Netanyahu and her attitude to the employees” including “exaggerated demands, insults, humiliation and outbursts of anger” and requirements “to work long and exceptional hours.”

Coverage of the decision was somewhat buried in the ever-churning Israeli news cycle, which has been consumed with the terror wave and the larger drama of the incarceration of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

But the ruling was music to the ears of journalists and other public critics, who have gleefully chronicled the Netanyahus' terminally problematic household management, and who in return have been systematically attacked as politically driven unfair nitpickers. The constant refrain from the Netanyahu camp has been that the frustrated souls who couldn’t bring down Benjamin Netanyahu were spitefully going after Sara.

The long list of disgruntled employees fueled the media's narrative. That list includes nanny Tanya Shaw who, in 1996, was tossed out of the residence for burning soup and was the first employee to describe Sara as an obsessive clean freak prone to screaming fits. In 2010, housekeeper Liliane Peretz filed suit in labor court saying she was screamed at and humiliated, overworked and underpaid. And a year later, Tara Kumari, the Nepalese former caregiver for Sara Netanyahu’s father, held a press conference where she said she was forced to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with no holidays or severance when she was fired. She also claimed that she fell and injured herself while backing away from Sara Netanyahu’s wrath.

Naftali’s suit, unlike the others, carried more weight since, unlike his predecessors, he was on the state payroll. But, like the other employees, he was attacked and threatened by the Netanyahu team of lawyers, publicists, and political supporters, his claims dismissed as “evil gossip.”

But now it is a judge – not an interested party or a journalist – who has determined that the Israeli White House is, in fact, a house of horrors.

So what now? The Prime Minister’s office is threatening to file an appeal challenging the “slander” against Sara, which it called “mistaken, misguided and far from reality.” Since the Prime Minister’s wife was considered a witness in the case, not the defendant (the state was the defendant), it protested that “it was impossible for her to bring witnesses and her own evidence” to defend herself.

But Sara Netanyahu’s good name is not the point. The bottom line is that there is now an indisputable pattern of abuse in the Prime Minister’s residence – the place that is supposed to represent the “little people,” and make them proud, not a place where their tax dollars support employees who are mistreated and humiliated by someone who is not even a state employee, just married to one. 

Where is the Knesset, the body that is supposed to speak in the name of the people? The relative silence of the Israeli parliament when it comes to Sara Netanyahu’s behavior in the government residence has been both mystifying and disturbing. After all, it is state funds – the taxes of the citizens they are meant to represent, which were used to mount the legal defense against Naftali. State funds – not the Netanyahus' private money – will be used to compensate him, and, if Sara Netanyahu is permitted to appeal, state funds will likely be used to underwrite that effort as well.

In defending past charges of excessive spending by the Netanyahu family on the upkeep of their residences and lifestyle, some have compared their expenditures to the large outlays of other heads of state and claimed it was petty and inappropriate to take the prime minister to task for his spending on cleaning bills, garden furniture or pistachio ice cream. Compared to some foreign leaders, they said, he's not so bad.

But in the Naftali case, and in the overall treatment of employees, the Netanyahus probably wouldn’t want to be held to overseas standards of behavior.

One can only imagine what a Republican Congress in the United States would be doing if First Lady Michelle Obama had been systematically accused of mistreating White House staff during President Obama's tenure and the U.S. government was ordered to pay for that behavior.

Certainly, the president would face far greater political ramifications for his wife’s actions than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been.

Think about it: A scenario in which a U.S. president, for years, continually denied and justified his wife’s abuse of employees, smearing those who claimed to be injured by her, and forcing American taxpayers to foot the bill for the damage. In such a scenario, it is not far-fetched to suggest that there would be talk of impeachment as the only way to end a saga whose price – in dollars and national embarrassment – had grown far too high.