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News Analysis: Netanyahu’s Wife Hot Topic for Uninhibited Israeli Media

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Israel’s first lady has once again become the subject of unsavory news reports — and the coverage says as much about the Israeli media as it does about the prime minister’s family.

Last year, Sara Netanyahu was lambasted in the press for firing a nanny who allegedly burned a pot of soup.

Ever since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was elected last year, his wife has been a favorite media target.

But the bad coverage turned even worse this week, after the Israel’s largest- circulation newspaper, Yediot Achronot, published a six-page investigative piece in its weekend magazine section.

The article depicted Sara Netanyahu as an embarrassment to her husband, cruel and domineering toward her staff, and availing herself of state resources that she had no right to.

The story in Yediot — which quickly spilled over to other Israeli media as well as the international media — prompted calls for the role of the prime minister’s spouse to be defined by law.

The coverage also prompted questions of whether the first lady was hampering her husband’s ability to govern.

Among the worst excesses reported by Yediot in graphic detail was an outburst in which she hurled shoes at a veteran domestic staffer at the prime minister’s residence.

On another occasion, according to Yediot, she hurled abuse at the family that had purchased her childhood home near Haifa when she and her husband visited it unannounced during a vacation this summer. The paper also reported that once, in the middle of a jealous rage, she threatened to call the police on her husband.

Other media confirmed the general impression of a flighty and high-handed woman who maintains a facade of charitable involvement without much substance, but who insists on keeping up a sizable staff of state-paid employees to which she is not legally entitled.

In part, the directness — some would say crudeness — of the reports reflects a shift away from the self-imposed constraints that Israeli media long maintained.

This change is widely attributed to the intensity of the competition and the huge financial stakes involved as newspapers and television channels vie for readership and ratings.

In part, too, the Yediot report signifies that covering a politician’s private life, including domestic strife, is now considered fair game.

Some observers say that the media shed its inhibitions after Netanyahu became the first Israeli premier to actively thrust his family before the public eye.

But beyond these sociological shifts, there is a genuine sense of concern about the revelations in the Netanyahu household.

Many Israelis, regardless of their political sympathies, say they are sincerely concerned that the premier cannot devote all the energies he needs for his job because of problems at home.

In the words of one American Jewish leader: “The guy has no menuchah (rest). Not in the office, nor at home. Everyone needs some menuchah in order to function.”

In the wake of the Yediot report, the Netanyahus have pointed to a deluge of letters of support that have been flowing into the premier’s office and residence.

Some of this support may have been initiated or encouraged by circles around the prime minister’s family.

But it would be wrong to dismiss this support as staged and to contend that the Yediot report only damaged the prime minister.

Political pundits believe that diehard Netanyahu supporters will probably have had their sympathy — and their loathing of what they view as the left-liberal media — intensified by the latest coverage of the first lady.

Sara Netanyahu has attributed her bad coverage to a media bias in favor of the opposition.

The prime minister has long felt that winning over the media has been a lost cause; his concern is to get maximal — not favorable — coverage.

Indeed, he rarely loses an occasion at party meetings and public rallies to score popular rhetorical points by singling out the media for his invective.

After failing to react for several days — advance word about the Yediot report began making headlines last week — Netanyahu issued an aggrieved statement Saturday decrying the depths of unethical journalism.

He also informed Yediot’s publisher that he and Sara were canceling their subscription.

This move was calculated to appeal to the constituency that regards the media as irredeemably leftist. That constituency recognizes the prime minister’s personal flaws but nevertheless continues to support him politically as the best available leader.

A full-page ad in Israel newspapers Monday proclaimed that “a whole nation” stand behind the Netanyahus “against base and evil media.”

While the staunch spirit of this constituency can be demonstrated by the piles of letters, faxes and telegrams of support reaching the prime minister, some seasoned observers insist that the Netanyahu camp’s “no damage” assessment is glib.

The influential Yediot, after all, decided to go ahead with the expose, knowing full well that it would be seen as an open declaration of war against the premier.

In response to Netanyahu’s statement Saturday night, the newspaper reasserted that its story was well founded.

The fact that other media had done extensive follow-up stories proved conclusively that the Yediot report was journalistically valid, the newspaper added.

Perhaps even more significant, Yediot chose to follow the Sara Netanyahu story in its magazine with another lengthy expose focusing on the wholesale disorganization, mismanagement and internecine struggles that are bedeviling the government’s efforts to arrange a series of celebrations to mark Israel’s 50th anniversary.

The government — especially the prime minister and his office — emerge from the report as a bunch of incompetents.

Taken together, the two reports represent a devastating saga of prime ministerial woes that are being discussed in virtually every Israeli home. Yediot sells some 650,000 copies on a regular Friday; the pre-publication hype probably pushed last weekend’s sales even higher.

Whatever the loyalty of the premier’s diehard support — and whatever its professed contempt for media — this kind of publicity cannot but have a deleterious effect on Netanyahu’s standing in the long term.

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