The woman who whispered in prime ministers’ ears

Odelia Karmon made news when she revealed Katsav’s sexual harassment publicly, but her new book reflects her no-less-interesting quieter relations with other leaders.

Netanyahu and Karmon 370 (photo credit: courtesy )
Netanyahu and Karmon 370
(photo credit: courtesy )
She has probably spent more time with many of Israel’s current, former and future prime ministers, presidents and foreign ministers than any woman alive today. Her long resumé includes 27 years of work behind the scenes with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, former prime minister Ariel Sharon, former president Moshe Katsav, and former foreign minister and possible future president David Levy. She wrote press releases, speeches and letters that changed history.
And yet, Odelia Karmon is best known in Israel for just one letter: Alef.
Karmon was one of three witnesses in Katsav’s rape trial, known by the first initial of their Hebrew name and by where they had worked with Katsav.
The allegations against Katsav were originally leveled at Alef from the president’s residence – leading to the president’s own downfall. He was convicted of raping a second Alef, a woman he had worked with at the Tourism Ministry.
Karmon, meanwhile, was Alef from the Transportation Ministry. Katsav could not be convicted for harassing her because the incidents happened too long ago, and the statute of limitations had passed. But her testimony as a character witness was accepted by the court for its credibility, and she ultimately played a key role in his conviction.
But Katsav’s harassment of Karmon was only a small chapter in her life, and only seven of the 18 chapters in her new autobiography Eshet Hasod (“The Woman of Secrets”) are about him.
The others are about her experiences in the corridors of power. She recounts history from an insider’s perspective in a whimsical and personal fashion, like a smart and sassy Israeli woman’s version of Forrest Gump.
The only similar insider’s tell-all book about so many Israeli leaders was The Prime Ministers by Yehuda Avner, but Karmon’s book is about more recent Israeli governments. It is fresher, more opinionated and much less polite.
The book, which will be known as The Confidante in English, is rapidly being translated into that language.
Karmon has signed with a leading American literary agent who will promote the book in the United States and around the world – and likely transform her from “Alef” into a household name.
IN HER first in-print interview since her book reached stores and sold out within a week last month, Karmon reflects on how the public sees its leaders through the prism of the media.
“I think the public and journalists have a tendency to create idols and destroy them,” she laments. “We are a country that is very unforgiving to its leaders. In 65 years, not one prime minister ended his term well.
The journalists sometimes have no mercy.”
Karmon has earned degrees in English literature from Tel Aviv University, in communications from the New York Institute of Technology, and in cognitive and behavioral psychotherapy from Derby University in England. Her master’s thesis at Derby, which she wrote during the Katsav scandal, was on “postponed reaction to sexual harassment in the workplace.”
She first met Netanyahu through a friend of his vaunted late brother, Yoni. She was Netanyahu’s spokeswoman when he was Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations from 1986 to 1988. She returned with Netanyahu to Israel at his request, to assist him in entering politics.
After a stint with ABC News, she went to work with Katsav. She was the spokeswoman for Levy as foreign minister, Sharon as prime minister and Uzi Landau as the head of the pre-disengagement protest movement before going back to work for Netanyahu again, 20 years after they parted ways.
“It is hard to rest when you know the people from up close,” Karmon writes in the book, before explaining how the press has completely misunderstood her former bosses and how the image of Israel’s leaders it presents is so unlike who they really are in person.
She notes that former prime minister Ehud Olmert is seen as arrogant, even though he is quite charming in real life. Comparing the two top Sephardi leaders Israel has had, Karmon writes that Levy was seen as a political manipulator, although he was the most honest and clean. Katsav, on the other hand, was seen as a colorless family man until it was revealed that he was both lustful and corrupt.
THE POLITICIAN Karmon spends the most time analyzing in the book is Netanyahu. Using her degrees in both communications and psychotherapy, she describes him as humorless and tense, even in relaxing moments – very different from his charismatic image on TV.
“With Bibi there is an incomprehensible gap between his image as an eloquent fighter with a deep and comprehensive view of how to get things done with determination and decisiveness, and the real person who is hesitant, apprehensive, paranoid and has the greatest difficulty implementing decisions,” she writes.
Karmon illustrates the complex nature of Netanyahu’s character, making a point of balancing his positives and negatives.
On the positive side, she calls him “a creator and supplier of adrenaline, a spark plug who could generate headlines and display readiness for action on even the most normal day.” But on the negative side, she notes that he forgets people once they complete their mission for him and that he had no real friends, just people using him and who were used by him.
“I felt more comfortable being around him the moment I internalized that his fears and constant worries were part of him,” she writes. “The intense pressure he projected to everyone around him was the result of his internal complicated persona, and no one but him was to blame. When I understood this I stopped feeling frustrated and helpless,” she says.
In the interview, Karmon described Netanyahu as a great boss whose enthusiasm is contagious, lets his staff do their jobs, and unlike other Likudniks, never criticizes his rivals or uses harsh language.
“His mind is very task-oriented and very dedicated to fulfilling what he has in mind,” she says. “He can be very friendly, but also absent-minded. I always told people not to take it personally when his thoughts drift elsewhere.”
Describing in the book her first impressions of Netanyahu in New York, Karmon says he was very serious and she never saw him smile – until TV cameras appeared and he came alive. “Wow, even the average housewife in Cincinnati who is addicted to the Shopping Channel would understand him, be persuaded by him and buy whatever he is selling,” she wrote.
Karmon recalled how Netanyahu built himself up as an international authority on terror, prepared for interviews with journalist Ted Koppel and politician and commentator Pat Buchanan, and built friendships with the top movers and shakers in the international media.
She said it was already clear to her back then that he would be prime minister one day.
Working for an indecisive perfectionist was not always pleasant. Before the dawn of computers, he made her type letters and retype them over and over again from scratch when he reconsidered a single word.
“Time after time, he sent me back pages until I knew them by heart,” she wrote. “I felt an intense desire to scream, my nerves began to weaken, my fingers shook. But Bibi as a literary editor who was in love with his words did not notice. He had a brilliant mind that worked intensively, but he suffered from constant mental pressure that frequently made him sick. He was a man who was wonderful at connecting to the heartstrings of the wider public, but could not see what was happening right under his nose.”
IN HER analysis of Sara Netanyahu, Karmon also tries to be balanced, despite the fact that her second tenure of work with the Likud leader ended due to a dispute over how she was being paid, in which Netanyahu’s wife played a decisive role. She makes a point of repeatedly defending Sara, but does not downplay stereotypes of her inordinate power.
“My subjective thought is that she was more influential than him,” Karmon says. “I didn’t think she was interested in the Iranian issue or economic affairs, but regarding political appointments, meetings and overall strategy, I found her to be the strong side of the partnership and an influential, unofficial part of the staff.”
The book contains several anecdotes about Sara, including how Karmon would make sure her picture was in the frame in all of her husband’s interviews, and the times she would make clerks in the office cry.
She recalls the Netanyahus’ odd French kiss at a haredi women’s shelter in Mea She’arim and Sara repeatedly calling her in Israel from London for help with the TV remote control at the city’s most expensive hotel.
In an interview with Channel 2’s Uvda (Fact) program, Karmon called a controversial London visit she helped organize for the Netanyahus to help defend Israel during the Second Lebanon War “completely hedonist and too much of a pleasure trip.” But Netanyahu said that people who receive $100,000 per lecture have different standards.
As Netanyahu’s main contact with the Jewish world and international media both the times she worked for him, Karmon says he was always admired as Israel’s most requested speaker and defender.
“He represents for US Jews all that they want to see in a Sabra: Combat officer, brother of a hero, highly educated, and can speak American English,” she says. the Iranian problem. I am not a prophet. We have to wait and see if the high profile he gave the Iranian issue will be justified in retrospect.”
Karmon says it is too soon to judge whether Netanyahu will make a mark on history by leading a breakthrough in Palestinian or socioeconomic issues.
She contrasts Netanyahu with Sharon, who she says proved his ability to make tough decisions time and time again, including with leaving the Likud and the Gaza Strip.
“Sharon was the most impressive leader I worked for,” she says. “His knowledge of the country, his experience, his stamina and his ability to make decisions and implement them were very impressive.
When he got into office, the second intifada broke out. As a former general, he was dying to take revenge and fight back, but he showed restraint, even though it was unpopular in his camp. Being a leader means making the right choice even when it’s not popular.”
The book describes Sharon’s emotions in the months after the loss of his beloved wife Lily and the inner workings of the so-called ranch forum that planned his political comeback from his Negev farm.
At first the forum worked like a well-oiled machine, but infighting among the people closest to Sharon when he was prime minister eventually led to Karmon’s departure.
KARMON WAS impressed by the leadership of Olmert on the Left and Landau on the Right, Olmert because of how he handled tough situations, and Landau for his ideological consistency.
She describes Landau as “an officer and a gentleman.”
The politician who pleasantly surprised Karmon the most was Levy. She had a negative impression of him from working for Netanyahu when they were bitter rivals, but when she became his spokeswoman at the Foreign Ministry, he was professional, humorous and much smarter than portrayed in the Israeli media.
“He was highly regarded in the world,” she recalls. “Everywhere we went he was treated like a true leader. Only in Israel, partly due to racism, he unfortunately was not respected. He was a man of the people with the wisdom and pragmatism that are the requirements needed for a job like foreign minister.”
Told that those are also good characteristics for a president, Karmon says that Levy, who is mulling running in next year’s race, would be a good choice to succeed Shimon Peres.
Karmon gives valuable survival tips for anyone starting to work in political offices in Israel. She says she would advise them not to remove anyone from their stronghold in an office and to avoid stepping on any warts.
“Work in the field that is your strong suit and control it with a strong hand,” she says.
Karmon no longer works in politics, preferring to treat actual psychiatric patients – rather than politicians whose craziness is less overt. Nowadays, the closest she comes to politicians is a patient who thinks he is prime minister.
With the keen insight of a veteran political insider, she describes how dealing with politicians also has a lot in common with teaching kids who are particularly difficult.
“Many beautiful words and expressions from zoology are needed to explain what happens in the Prime Minister’s Office, including lions’ den, pack of wolves and sharks in an aquarium,” she writes. “I, however, saw what happened in the office in human terms. Each day I felt like a kindergarten teacher at a kindergarten for children with special needs.”
And saw a president's...
Odelia Karmon’s book Eshet Hasod (“The Woman of Secrets”) begins with the story of what happened when then-opposition leader Netanyahu found out that Karmon was the woman who in an anonymous Ma’ariv interview accused President Moshe Katsav of sexual harassment.
Karmon was Netanyahu’s external relations adviser and liaison to donors and the foreign press. He was walking on eggshells at the time to not ruin the political comeback he had worked so hard on.
So instead of reacting with sensitivity, Netanyahu complained to her: “I am destroyed. What did you do? They are trying to kill my political career.”
Netanyahu was afraid that the president would accuse him of sending Karmon to hurt Katsav’s chances of returning to politics after his term as president. And in fact Katsav’s associates said just that when they blamed the interview on “political rivals.”
To clear his name, Netanyahu sent Karmon to take two polygraph tests, which she passed. She had associated polygraph tests with criminals and did not want to take one, but Ma’ariv editor Amnon Dankner, who died this week, said the tests would help the paper in case it got sued by Katsav for libel.
Karmon credited Dankner with risking a lawsuit to print her allegations and prevent Katsav from hurting more women. After the story was printed, then-attorney-general Menahem Mazuz announced that he would investigate Katsav for sexual harassment.
Hours after Mazuz’s announcement, soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev were kidnapped and the Second Lebanon War began. Had Karmon or Dankner waited with the story, the Katsav scandal could have been forgotten due to the war.
Karmon’s Ma’ariv interview came after more than 15 years of silence since the Katsav incidents. She revealed that when she was his spokesman in 1990, he repeatedly expressed his affection for her and tried to persuade her to have physical contact. At one point when they were alone, he unzipped his pants and tried to get her to touch his male organ.
But Katsav never forced himself on Karmon like he did later to a woman in the Tourism Ministry whom he was convicted of raping. When Katsav accused a woman at the President’s Residence of trying to extort him for accusing him of sexual harassment, Karmon knew she could no longer be silent.
“Odelia leaped out of her armchair and decided there and then to tell all, to spill the beans, to blow the whistle,” the book jacket says. “It was her testimony that subsequently began the process that ultimately led to the conviction of the president of the state, who was then thrown into jail, like the lowliest of rapists.”
Asked why she did not complain to police about Katsav when the incidents happened, Karmon says that there was no sexual harassment law in Israel at the time and no Hebrew term to describe what she had been through.
None of the newspapers would have published the allegations at the time, because their legal advisers would not have let them. It was not so easy to complain about powerful people in those days.
“I was afraid of him and the people who surrounded him who later did jail time,” she says. “I thought he was in love with me and that I was the only woman who had this experience with him.”
When asked why she did not tell Katsav’s wife, Gila, she says: “I didn’t want to interfere with his marriage and cause her discomfort and heartbreak. I told my husband, but I didn’t want to tell her. I thought Katsav was in love with me and it was my responsibility to deal with it in the proper manner, not to ruin his marriage.”
Even though it came much later, Karmon gave the case against Katsav a boost. He could not be convicted of harassing Karmon due to a statute of limitations, but her testimony as a character witness was deemed the most credible by the court.
The prosecution initially reached a plea agreement with Katsav that would have saved him from jail time. But when Karmon petitioned the Supreme Court to complain about a clause in the agreement, he surprisingly rejected the deal that would have prevented the trial that led to his conviction and his jail sentence.
Karmon says the real surprise was that the Knesset elected Katsav president in the first place.
“Katsav had a gray presence,” she says. “No one thought he would be elected. No one asked for my opinion. Everyone knew what happened. The Knesset members elected him anyway.”