Netanyahu's wife accused of bullying staff

Outcry over claims she sacked elderly gardener and humiliated housekeeper

It's been a taxing time for Benjamin Netanyahu. He has had to soothe fears of a possible war with Lebanon. He has made an uncompromising statement about the future of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. And then, of course, there's the knotty matter of his wife's domestic arrangements and the employees she is accused of bullying.

First, an Israeli newspaper revealed in a front-page story that Sara Netanyahu's former housekeeper, Lillian Peretz, was filing suit for £50,000 damages from her ex-employer for "humiliating" her and paying her less than the minimum wage. Try as she did to brush the allegations off, the first lady could not make them go away.

Then, as if her reputation weren't in enough trouble, another publication claimed that Mrs Netanyahu had fired "an elderly Jew, about 70, a bereaved father who used to rake leaves and carry out basic gardening chores for less than the minimum wage". To fire a man whose son died fighting for his country would be considered harsh anywhere. But in Israel, where society's identification with fallen soldiers and their parents is at the very core of its identity, what Ms Netanyahu stands accused of doing is regarded as unspeakably cruel.

Now the Netanyahu family is fighting back, with a £167,000 lawsuit for defamation against the newspaper concerned, Maariv. The problem is that it may all be too late. For accurate or not, a monstrous picture has emerged in recent weeks of how the child psychologist and former airline stewardess, the third wife of the hardline Prime Minister, handles her domestic staff. And some commentators, particularly those who also dislike her husband, say this is not just an Israeli take-off of Upstairs, Downstairs but a risk to the public's well-being and even national security.

They charge that Sara Netanyahu determines appointments of government officials and meddles in affairs of state – something her spokesman denies. Mr Netanyahu, for his part, is being depicted as deferring to his wife.

"He's there to satisfy her, not to work for us," Maariv's Ben Caspit, one of Israel's most prominent journalists, alleged yesterday in response to the lawsuit.

The gardener allegations would have far less traction, of course, without the previous stories about the house- keeper, which first appeared in Yediot Ahronot newspaper. Ms Peretz, who worked at the Netanyahu's weekend residence in posh Caesarea, made a serious allegation against the first lady: that she forced her to work on Saturdays even though the employee observes the Jewish command not to work on the sabbath. And that was not all. Ms Peretz, who has received death threats against her family since the publication of her account, alleges that Sara Netanyahu called her at two o'clock in the morning to ask why a pillow case did not properly cover a pillow. She also said that Mrs Netanyahu forced her to bring four different sets of clothes to work.

A spokesman for the Netanyahu family, Shaya Segel, denies the allegations, adding: "There are innumerable people who worked with [Mrs Netanyahu] who can attest to the warm and concerned treatment they received."

The Prime Minister himself made an angry intervention at a press conference with Angela Merkel last week, demanding that the press "leave my wife and children alone". But the denials have not helped them win a PR war that has so far gone badly.

Twice as many Israelis believe Ms Peretz as do Mrs Netanyahu, according to a poll, which also found 56 per cent believe she is involved in the Prime Minister's decisions on public appointments.

In particular, newspapers had reported even before the scandal erupted that Mrs Netanyahu had thwarted the appointment of Alon Pinkas, a respected former Israeli consul-general in New York, to the post of ambassador to the United Nations – a claim that Mr Segel denies.

Uri Dromi, who was a spokesman for the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, said the row cannot be entirely dismissed. "There's a lot of excess and exaggeration, but the public needs to know [as to Mrs Netanyahu's role]... Her husband must be in the best state of mind and not be stressed by unnecessary things, because he is charged with the future of the country."