Sexism, Mrs. Netanyahu and Mr. Livni

What would happen if the husband of a woman Israeli PM were involved in her diplomatic activities?

Try to imagine it. What would happen if the husband of a woman Israeli prime minister were involved in her diplomatic and political activities? Try to imagine how we would react if the prime minister consulted with the "first man," her husband, on every possible issue. Would we criticize his involvement in matters that were purportedly none of his business? Would we attack the husband's intervention in the prime minister's dealings including the appointment of advisers and political hangers-on, the recruitment of supporters, the crafting of agreements and the political path forged by Mrs. Prime Minister? Would we poke fun at the news that the househusband was helping his wife to be more "sensitive and attentive" at the office?

Maybe we would forgive the first couple just because the lady is a lady, even if she is prime minister, and the man is a man; it's well known that he's entitled to more leeway and to say what's on his mind. And wouldn't we think Mrs. Prime Minister obviously needed her husband's support, assistance and advice because she is a woman? But when the situation is reversed, all hell breaks loose - a real public scandal.

But you don't have to use your imagination too much. Kadima leader Tzipi Livni almost became prime minister with her "Naftul," as she calls him, at her side. Her husband, Naftali Spitzer, has actually been very involved for years in his wife's activities. Everyone calls him her "operations officer," the man who not only serves food at meetings, usually zucchini quiche, but is also very involved in the meetings. In the last elections, he took part in every meeting with top staff, was involved in decision-making and even the staff appointments by the first woman of Israeli politics. Dita Kohl-Roman, Livni's bureau chief when she was foreign minister, and Amir Goldstein, her election headquarters chief, were directly appointed by Naftul. Livni did not know them.

Spitzer not only passed out bumper stickers at election rallies, he tried to mobilize support for his wife. He accompanied her in her travels at home and abroad. He phoned the necessary people to do what had to be done to conjure up support. No one made a peep about his involvement as a supportive husband. It was accepted as natural: a woman who is a public figure and a man behind the scenes. Fantastic. That's how a couple should work together. That's how our opposition leader works, and it's good that it's that way.

What did Livni once say? "When I fall to pieces, Naftali will always be there to put me back together." And what did Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu say last week at a news conference in Germany about his wife, Sara? "She helps me to be a more sensitive person and a more attentive prime minister." Spot the differences between the two pictures. True, Netanyahu would never admit to falling to pieces, which of course could only happen to a woman. But other than that, there is no difference at all. The only difference is in the aggressive public response to the Netanyahus. What a man married to a female public figure can do a woman married to a male public figure can't.

Sara Netanyahu is very different from Spitzer in her character and personal composition. Spitzer the good old boy is modest. Sara Netanyahu is arrogant, boastful and remote. But even if Spitzer had yelled at the plumber at his house, it's not likely this would have made headlines. He's entitled.

Even if their styles are different and Mrs. Netanyahu really is the very problematic woman she is portrayed to be, apparently with justification, her public treatment is tainted by more than a hint of despicable male chauvinism. The lawsuit by Lillian Peretz, Sara Netanyahu's housekeeper, will be sorted out in court, but not only Peretz aroused the fury about the Netanyahus. We don't like Sara Netanyahu to be involved in her husband's activities, but we love Spitzer's involvement in Livni's. That's the truth.

The truth is that Israeli politics continue to be frighteningly chauvinistic, even if the current Supreme Court president and the former Knesset speaker are women. There is not a single woman of influence and importance in the current Israeli cabinet. In Western Europe and the United States such a situation would not be possible. The forum of seven senior cabinet ministers is an exclusive men's-only club, and let's not waste our time with the defense establishment. War and peace, budgets and Iran - everything is in the hands of men. Just men.

Sara Netanyahu tried to gain a foothold, clumsily perhaps, and look what happened to her, and what is happening to us.