Embarrassments mount up for Netanyahu

Ultra-Orthodox Jews, whose swing vote put Binyamin Netanyahu in power a month ago, yesterday blocked his appointment of the steamrolling former Defence Minister, Ariel Sharon, to a new hybrid National Infrastructure portfolio.

After confident official predictions that a deal would be presented to the Cabinet at its regular Friday meeting, the issue was postponed till Sunday. This is highly embarrassing for the Mr Netanyahu because his rebellious Foreign Minister, David Levy, has threatened to resign if Mr Sharon is not in the government before Mr Netanyahu leaves on Monday for his first official visit to Washington.

The United Torah Judaism party is refusing to give up a slice of the Housing Ministry, which it controls as a partner in the six-party coalition. Reports in yesterday's Israeli press suggested that Mr Netanyahu might call the ultra-Orthodox bluff and present the Sharon appointment without their acquiescence. He woke up thinking better of it.

The Sharon saga is part of a general unravelling of Mr Netanyahu's authority as he discovers that being Prime Minister of Israel is not like being President of the United States. "He's getting on-the-job training," Dr Gadi Wolfsfeld, a Hebrew University political scientist, commented last night. "He has moved out of the fantasy land of opposition into the reality land of government. Like any young, inexperienced leader, he's learning what the job entails - and he's making some mistakes."

His discomfiture is compounded by the soap opera of "Nannygate", which began last Sunday when the Prime Minister's wife, Sara, sacked the nanny, Tanya Shaw, for burning a pan of soup.

An earlier Netanyahu nanny, Heidi Ben-Yair, a 22-year-old immigrant from Manchester, surfaced yesterday and confirmed Ms. Shaw's tale of a mean employer obsessed by hygiene for her two sons, Yair, five, and Avner, one-and-a-half. Ms. Ben-Yair quit after one week two years ago.

"During the whole week," she told the Israeli tabloid Ma'ariv, "she allowed me to leave the house only once. She had a rule that you had to wash your hands before going into each room. If a blanket fell on the floor, it had to be washed.

"I went around hungry. On one occasion, she yelled at me for 20 minutes because I ate a tomato. She told me that tomatoes were expensive, and I could not take more than one tomato a day and more than one egg every two days.''

Mrs Netanyahu countered the charges with an interview of her own in Yediot Aharonot, the biggest-selling Hebrew daily. "People who are not clean and not hygienic always say these things about people who are clean," she said. "I keep a clean house, but everything else is nonsense."