JERUSALEM (Jan. 24)
The sex-and-politics scandal surrounding one of Israel’s most popular politicians, Benjamin Netanyahu, continues to captivate the country as new details leak out about the “other woman” in his life.
The affair, already dubbed “Bibi-gate” in splashy newspaper headlines, competes here for the day’s top news story with the political crisis created by Israel’s deportation of Moslem fundamentalists.
The scandal broke more than a week ago when Bibi, as the American-educated Knesset member is popularly known, went public with an accusation that he was being blackmailed.
Netanyahu claimed that an anonymous person had phoned his wife and threatened that a secret videotape showing him in compromising circumstances with another woman would be made public if he did not withdraw his candidacy for the leadership of the opposition Likud bloc.
Netanyahu admitted on Israeli television that he had, indeed, been having an extramarital affair with another woman but had ended it some months ago.
While such private scandals are commonplace in North America and Europe, they are rare in Israel, and this one has riveted the Israeli public.
The big story over the weekend broke when Israeli newspapers identified the “other woman” as a media adviser hired by Netanyahu to help him in last year’s Likud party primary.
The country’s newspapers on Sunday ran lengthy stories describing the romance between Netanyahu and Ruth Bar, the marketing and media consultant. Bar’s husband, Petach Tikvah eye surgeon Shmuel Bar, has filed for divorce, publicly identifying Netanyahu as his wife’s lover.
Israel’s largest-circulation daily newspaper, Yediot Achronot, draped a photograph of Ruth Bar over much of its front page Sunday.
According to Yediot, Dr. Bar, 44, had suspected for many months that his wife was having an affair with Netanyahu. However, he decided to sue for divorce only after he saw Bibi’s public confession on television.
NETANYAHU REMAINS POPULAR
Despite the scandal — or perhaps because of it — Netanyahu’s political stock remains high.
A poll taken after the story first broke showed that Netanyahu would beat Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by 34 percent to 28 percent if direct elections were held today.
The poll, conducted by the Panorama firm and published Friday in the daily Ma’ariv, also showed that Netanyahu would win his party’s leadership in the Likud primaries if the vote were taken now. The primary is scheduled to be held this coming spring.
According to the projections, Netanyahu would easily beat out his party rivals, gaining 51 percent of the vote against 25 percent for Ze’ev “Benny” Begin and only 11 percent for former Foreign Minister David Levy.
More than three-quarters of the 786 individuals polled said they did not think Netanyahu should quit the primary race because of the scandal.
Netanyahu has accused his rivals in the Likud primary of trying to blackmail him and his lawyer has filed a complaint against two aides of Levy.
Both of these aides have denied the accusations and are now demanding that Netanyahu withdraw from the leadership race if he cannot prove his charges.
In long and frank interviews to various media over the weekend, Netanyahu said he and his third wife, Sarah, were facing a crisis in their marriage as a result of the affair.
He insisted, however, that he had no regrets over his decision to “go public,” which he said was motivated by the overriding need to block a criminal attempt to blackmail him.
Netanyahu’s conduct has been widely criticized in the press. Commentators charge that he sought to make political gain or mitigate his political loss at the expense of his wife’s honor.
Several leading columnists have pointed out that while Israeli politics has had its fair share of sex scandals in the past, the local media have almost always kept them out of the public eye.
They predict that Netanyahu’s choice to go public with the issue will now push politicians’ private lives into the public domain.
(Contributing to this report was JTA correspondent Hugh Orgel in Tel Aviv.)