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Netanyahu Confesses to Affair After Reported Blackmail Threat

In a sex-and-politics scandal unprecedented in Israeli public life, Knesset member Benjamin Netanyahu confessed on national television Thursday to an extramarital affair he said had ended “several months ago.”

The admission by Netanyahu, who is the front-runner in the race for the Likud chairmanship, came a day after his wife, Sarah, received an anonymous telephone call demanding that he withdraw from the party leadership contest if he did not want the media to get a videocassette showing him in intimate poses with another woman.

The American-educated Netanyahu, who formerly served as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, warned somberly that “the mafia” was threatening to take over Israeli democracy.

He demanded that “this cancer be cut out right now” before the “criminal intrusion into the democratic process” spreads to other walks of life.

The charismatic, 43-year-old politician charged that “a senior figure in the Likud, who does not represent the Likud,” was behind the blackmail and promised to hand over information in his possession “to the appropriate authorities.”

Netanyahu’s closest rival in the six-way leadership race, former Foreign Minister David Levy, issued a statement sharply condemning the blackmail attempt.

A ‘GIMMICK’ STAGED BY NETANYAHU?

But unofficially, Levy’s camp branded the affair “a gimmick” staged by Netanyahu on the eve of the Friday deadline for registration in the Likud primaries.

“Why did Netanyahu choose today to publish the threat?” asked one source close to Levy. “Because he knows he is lagging behind Levy in the race and wants to elicit sympathy.”

Netanyahu, who is married for the third time, refused to say how his wife was reacting to the affair.

“This is private, and I believe in keeping private life and public life apart,” he said. “The Likud voters will make their choice based on the public records and pledges of the candidates.”

Israel Radio said a copy of the embarrassing videocassette had been sent to Israel Television News. But television newscasters made no reference to that report in their main news show at 9 p.m. local time.

This is believed to be the first time that an Israeli politician has been confronted with allegations of marital infidelity in the course of a run for office.

It may be emblematic of the new brand of Israeli politics, where party leadership contests are now being decided through popular, American-style primaries rather than in the smoke-filled rooms of party committees.

But politicians may not be the only Israeli figures to be smeared by sex scandals.

A leading contender in the race for Ashkenazic chief rabbi, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau of Tel Aviv, instructed his lawyers to take action against the Tel Aviv weekly Ha’ir for running a series of articles linking him with women other than his wife.

Lau’s move follows a call by a former chief rabbi, Shlomo Goren, to postpone the chief rabbi’s election, set for next month, pending a “neutral inquiry” into the allegations against Lau. Goren had said Lau’s failure to sue the paper “speaks loudly.”

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