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Ex-housekeeper alleges abuse by Israeli PM's wife

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ARON HELLER | January 17, 2010 11:48 AM EST | AP

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JERUSALEM — A former housekeeper has filed a lawsuit accusing the Israeli prime minister's wife of abusing her in the first scandal to hit Benjamin Netanyahu's year-old administration, bringing memories of the domestic distractions that clouded his tumultuous first term in office a decade ago.

Lillian Peretz, who worked as the Netanyahu family housekeeper in their beachside home in the town of Caesaria for six years, claims Sara Netanyahu verbally abused her and forced her to change clothes and shower several times a day to keep a "sterile" environment. It also alleges she was paid less than minimum wage and forced to work on the Jewish Sabbath even though she is an observant Jew.

The prime minister's office called the lawsuit "false and full of lies and defamation" in a statement Sunday alleging the housekeeper was part of a media-orchestrated political conspiracy.

Peretz is asking for about $80,000 in the lawsuit filed last week and publicized on Friday in the Yediot Ahronot daily.

Sara Netanyahu, a former flight attendant who is now a practicing psychologist, also stirred during her husband's first term as prime minister from 1996 to 1999. She came under fire several times for squabbling with her staff, flaunting her young children in public and meddling in state affairs. Among the scandals, she was accused of firing a nanny for burning a pot of soup and of throwing a pair of shoes at an assistant.

But Netanyahu's third wife has kept a low profile since her husband's return to power last March. She rarely generates headlines and the couple has enjoyed favorable public approval ratings. The couple has two children.

Netanyahu has said he learned important lessons from his first go-around as prime minister. He has kept a tight lid on leaks and members of his staff and Cabinet have avoided the financial and ethical missteps that have tarnished his predecessors.

But the current scandal threatens to reopen old wounds.

According to the lawsuit, Sara Netanyahu "like in the story of Cinderella, burdened her (Peretz) with impossible chores, tyrannized her and screamed to the point of terror."

The lawsuit alleges that Peretz was not allowed to drink the family's bottled water, only tap water.

The Netanyahus dismissed the allegations, saying that Peretz received warm and loving treatment in their home. They produced pictures of the two women embracing, a copy of Peretz's letter of resignation signed "with lots of love and appreciation," and a newspaper clipping of Peretz expressing her love for Sara Netanyahu.

David Shimron, a lawyer for the Netanyahus, told Israel's Army Radio that Sara Netanyahu has a great deal of empathy for Peretz, "and a degree of pity for her because she is being taken advantage by a certain media outlet."

He appeared to be referring to Yediot, which is in a bitter circulation war with an upstart newspaper that is strongly supportive of Netanyahu.

Sunday's newspapers were filled with reports on the scandal, trailing only the coverage of the catastrophe in Haiti. Radio shows hosted accounts of former employees telling similar tales.

"As a psychologist, she needs to know how to behave to human beings, and she doesn't," Naomi Igos, who worked as Sara Netanyahu's secretary in the 1990s, told Army Radio. "Sara Netanyahu is an employer who breaks the law in every possible way ... the yelling, the losing control, the calls in the middle of the night."

The report sparked heated debate on whether the domestic distraction would affect the conduct of the prime minister. One prominent columnist, Ben Caspit, went so far as to say that Netanyahu is "unfit" for the job.

"The fact that he permits that problematic woman to decide, to appoint, to fire, to upset, to dictate and to apply pressure on organizations in their entirety renders him unfit," he wrote in the Maariv daily.