JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu found himself engulfed in a fresh controversy Thursday after a former member of his housekeeping staff filed a lawsuit claiming he was mistreated and verbally abused by the Israeli leader’s wife, Sara.
It was the latest in a string of cases to taint Israel’s first family, who have been accused of enjoying an extravagant lifestyle while ignoring the plight of the struggling middle class. Netanyahu’s office rejected the claims as “outrageous.”
In his lawsuit, Meni Naftali says he was repeatedly subjected to abusive language, including an ethnic slur, by Sara Netanyahu during his 20 months on the job. He is seeking the equivalent of roughly $185,000 in damages.
In one instance, Naftali said that Sara Netanyahu called him at 3 a.m. to complain that he had bought milk in a plastic storage bag instead of a carton. In another, he claimed that she chastised him because some flowers in a vase were a day old, comparing the residence to the French presidential palace.
“When Sara saw flowers that were ‘not fresh,’ she flung them to the floor, as she yelled at Mr. Naftali calling him ‘a bad housekeeper,’ and that something like that would never occur in the ‘Elysee Palace,’” the lawsuit says.
Naftali also claimed that Sara Netanyahu derided his ethnicity when he ordered food for them in a hotel, implying that his Middle Eastern background was somehow uncouth. Over the years, Jews of Middle Eastern ancestry have often been seen as an underclass in Israel compared to the politically dominant Jews of Ashkenazi, or European, descent.
“Mrs. Netanyahu castigated the plaintiff, and explained to him ‘We are Europeans. We are refined, we don’t eat as much as you Moroccans. ... You are fattening us and then when we are photographed abroad, we look fat,’” it said.
Naftali also claimed that Sara Netanyahu berated him for bringing his children to the residence on Israeli Independence Day, a national holiday.
“While it was clear that during the meal he could leave with them to his house, Mrs. Netanyahu did not like this and asked that the children leave the house immediately, and even bothered to scold him by saying that ‘the prime minister also doesn’t see his children.’”
Naftali, who is in his mid-30s, said he served in an elite military unit before joining the staff as a bodyguard to Netanyahu’s two sons. He transferred to the housekeeping staff in February 2011 and remained there until leaving in November 2012. Although the prime minister continues to enjoy strong approval ratings, the latest lawsuit threatens to portray Netanyahu, a connoisseur of expensive cigars and cognac, as insensitive to the middle class. Just two years ago, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest the country’s high cost of living.
Netanyahu’s defenders have said the string of complaints against the family have been unfair and motivated by everything from personal jealousy to political rivalry to vendettas in the media.
“I have known the Netanyahu family for more than 20 years. All the things he says in the lawsuit are really not the Netanyahu family that I know,” Michael Rabello, a family friend, told Channel 2 TV.
Sara Netanyahu has been a lightning rod for criticism going back to her husband’s first term in the late 1990s, when she came under fire for allegedly squabbling with her staff and meddling in state affairs. Among other things, she was accused of firing a nanny for burning a pot of soup and of throwing a pair of shoes at an assistant.
Since her husband returned to office in 2009, she has kept a lower profile, though she has been unable to avoid the spotlight entirely. In 2010, a former housekeeper accused her of using abusive language and forcing her to shower several times a day to ensure a “sterile” environment.
In December, the prime minister came under fire after a watchdog group obtained expense reports showing heavy spending on scented candles and floral arrangements at his official residence.
Earlier last year, a TV station reported that Netanyahu spent $127,000 in public funds for a special sleeping cabin on a five-hour flight to London. Netanyahu was also forced to stop buying ice cream from his favorite Jerusalem parlor after an Israeli newspaper discovered his office was spending $3,000 a year for the treat.
Some of the criticism of the family has bordered on the personal. The Israeli media has sometimes targeted her for her appearance and choices of clothing. Recently Netanyahu’s oldest son made waves after it was discovered that he was dating a Norwegian student who is not Jewish.
In a statement, Netanyahu’s office called Naftali’s lawsuit “blackmail and outrageous.” It noted that Naftali filed the lawsuit after his request to receive a permanent position on the staff was rejected. “If it was so bad for him at the prime minister’s residence, why did he ask to work there permanently?” it said.
But speaking on Army Radio, Naftali’s lawyer, Naomi Landau, said she could prove all of the allegations.
“The examples that were raised are an iota of what happened in practice,” she said. “I could not believe that such professional harassment exists, this kind of nuisance, this kind of unreasonable behavior, to say the least, to treat an employee as a slave.”