Editor's Notes: Vicious criticism and a paucity of evidence

Netanyahu and his wife are under dramatic media fire. To date, the evidence published doesn’t justify the ferocity.

netanyahu and sara in poland holocaust 311 ap (photo credit: AP)
netanyahu and sara in poland holocaust 311 ap
(photo credit: AP)
Even by the frequently sensationalist standards of the Hebrew tabloid press, Tuesday’s assault by Ma’ariv’s best-known journalist, Ben Caspit, on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, was extraordinary.
Excerpted on page one, and splashed over page three of the paper, Caspit’s article asserted that Sara Netanyahu meddles untenably in the running of the country, “all day, every day, directly and via her various representatives in the corridors of power.”
Meanwhile her hapless husband, in Caspit’s narrative, fulfills his prime ministerial post “not to work on our behalf” but, rather, “to please her,” and uses all the legal tools at his disposal to try to intimidate his and her critics, notably in the media, via petitions to the Press Council, libel threats and more.
Caspit’s dramatic onslaught coincides with the eruption of the latest Sara Netanyahu scandal, in which one, then two, then three former employees of the prime minister’s household are apparently alleging mistreatment.
The first complainant to make headlines, ex-housekeeper Lillian Peretz, has filed a lawsuit alleging that she was exploited, mistreated, verbally abused and underpaid by the prime minister’s wife. On Monday, Peretz also filed a complaint with police claiming that her husband had received a telephone call threatening the lives of their four children if she did not withdraw her legal action.
THE “ESTABLISHED” Hebrew tabloids are going through particularly dark times. Like all newspapers, their paid circulation is being undercut by their own Web sites. But adding greatly to their difficulties is the fact that a rival, the free-sheet Yisrael Hayom, backed by Netanyahu-supporter billionaire Sheldon Adelson, is competing for both their readers and their advertising. And Yisrael Hayom is a potent competitor.
Many free papers around the world are tacky giveaways, vehicles for advertising that employ a minimum of journalists. Yisrael Hayom, by contrast, is well-funded and well-staffed; indeed, it may be the best free newspaper anywhere in the world. And its low advertising rates have drawn advertisers who used to spend their shekels at Yediot Aharonot and Ma’ariv.
Yisrael Hayom has long since overtaken Ma’ariv in terms of readership, and has Yediot in its sights. And Adelson has evidently been prepared to lose plenty of money in the bid for primacy.
There are many who would link these newspaper wars, and the suffering tabloids’ anger at Adelson and Netanyahu, to the dramatic prominence given by both Ma’ariv and Yediot to the new Sara Netanyahu allegations. On Friday, January 15, for instance, Yediot accorded as much coverage to Peretz’s allegations as it did to the escalating death toll at the height of the Haiti earthquake disaster.
By normal journalistic standards, after all, the two stories do not merit remotely comparable play, even though one relates to our own prime minister and the other has been unfolding a 16-hour flight away. Whatever the geography, up to 200,000 dead and a country collapsing rather eclipses Lillian Peretz’s claims that Sara Netanyahu barred her from drinking from the family water cooler, required her to shower and change her clothes during her day’s duties, made her work on Shabbat and otherwise acted abysmally toward her.
Such alleged behavior by the prime minister’s wife sounds dismaying, troubling, sometimes bizarre. It might lead one to conclude that Netanyahu’s domestic environment is not conducive to his best possible functioning as prime minister. But at least as reported to date, neither Peretz’s complaints against Sara, nor any of the other published allegations concerning the prime ministerial household, so much as begin to demonstrate the utter neglect of prime ministerial duty and responsibility of which Caspit is accusing Netanyahu.
In making that drastic accusation, therefore, Caspit runs the risk of his critique being perceived as personal animus. In publishing it on its front page this week, his newspaper, like Yediot a few days earlier, invites the perception that its news judgments are being skewed.
MA’ARIV’S STAR columnist is not the only journalist gunning for the prime minister with what looks, to date at least, like flawed ammunition.
Last Friday, Channel 2’s Amnon Abramovich issued grand allegations of troubling connections between big business in the shape of Adelson on the one hand, and Netanyahu’s government on the other, alleging “an unprecedented” disreputable relationship involving Jerusalem’s Shalem Center think tank. Abramovich intimated that the “scandalous appointment” of ex-Shalem scholar Michael Oren as Israel’s ambassador to the US, and the promotions to senior government positions of various other named individuals ostensibly associated with Shalem and Adelson, were worthy of the attentions of the attorney-general.
Shalem promptly fired off a legal letter demanding an apology. Adelson funded a particular institute at Shalem between 2007 and 2009 only, it pointed out. Oren, whose appointment is not, in fact, generally regarded as scandalous, had been at Shalem long before Adelson had any involvement there, it added. Netanyahu had no improper dealings with Shalem, it stressed. And Shalem, it made plain, had no connection to any of the cited appointments.
Gossip and allegations of scandal have surrounded the prime minister and his third wife since 1993, when he confessed, in a live interview on Israel TV, that he had been having an affair and claimed that a rival for the Likud leadership was seeking to blackmail him about it.
In the almost two decades of intermittent flurries of Sara reporting since, various minor scandals have come and gone. The most serious allegation ever raised in her context is the one that was lodged with the police on Monday – the assertion that Peretz’s family was now being subjected to death threats by terrifying anonymous callers bent on pressuring the former housekeeper into halting her legal action. These claims echo the allegations made three years ago in a very different context by then-accountant-general Yaron Zelekha, who charged that he and his family were being threatened with violence by associates of prominent members of a previous government if he did not halt his anti-corruption efforts.
Were the police to have linked Peretz’s death-threat claims to theprime minister and his circle, the latest Sara Netanyahu case wouldindeed have begun to justify the prominence it has been afforded insome of the Hebrew dailies. In fact, however, all the signs pointelsewhere, with police on Thursday questioning an inmate at Hadarimjail, a prisoner with no known connection whatsoever to the Netanyahus,on suspicion that he is the death-threat caller.
Injunctions and court orders and libel threats mean that readers arenot yet privy to all the claims and counter-claims surrounding thecurrent flurry of alleged Netanyahu family scandal. As things stand,however, on the basis of what has been published, the critics, for allthe passion of their prose, have yet to muster the evidence to justifytheir bitter ferocity. Even as they seek to raise questions in thepublic’s mind about the prime minister’s capabilities and credibility,therefore, they are raising graver questions about their own.