Israel's First Lady Sara Netanyahu Fights Back

Sara Netanyahu has filed a libel suit against a leading Israeli newspaper.

JERUSALEM, Jan. 26, 2010 — -- The ongoing media storm over Sara Netanyahu's alleged mistreatment of her family's former employees has taken a new twist.

The first lady filed a libel suit Monday against leading Israeli newspaper Maariv and senior columnist Ben Caspit, seeking more than $250,000 in damages.

The newspaper published a story Friday accusing her of sacking an elderly man who used to work in the garden of the prime minister's official residence in Jerusalem.

Caspit described him as "an elderly man, over 70, a bereaved father, who would rake the dry leaves and do basic gardening work in return for less than the minimum wage."

The libel suit denied that the man was fired, saying, "there is not a shred of truth in the above-cited article."

It also accused the Hebrew-language Maariv of failing to seek a response from Netanyahu to the allegation, causing her mental anguish that severely damaged her good name.

The latest development, which dominates the front pages and radio call-in shows, came a week after the Netanyahus' former cleaning lady Lillian Peretz filed a suit against Netanyahu for mistreatment and underpayment.

Meanwhile, two other newspapers have demanded a legal gag order be lifted on another case launched by a second anonymous cleaning lady against Netanyahu, alleging similar mistreatment.

There was no sign today that Maariv was backing down from its attack on the Netanyahu family.

In a front page article entitled "We Are Not Afraid," Caspit shot back, "The Netanyahu family yesterday launched a multi-pronged attack against a large part of the free media outlets that it does not (yet) control. ... All these steps attest to mounting panic."

Benjamin Netanyahu: Wife Made Him a More Sensitive Person

During an official visit to Germany last week, Prime Minister Netanyahu pleaded with the media to stop attacking his wife. He went on to say she was responsible for making him a more sensitive person.

Away from the specific allegations about his wife's treatment of staff, there are more serious criticisms about her perceived involvement in political affairs. Prominent political journalists have written of her purported influence over her husband and have commented negatively about her apparent meddling in the management of his office.

Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper's senior political analyst Sima Kadmon today attacked the prime minister's defense of his wife.

"When Netanyahu claims that Sara is being picked on unjustly, he knows this is not the truth," Kadmon wrote for the largest circulation daily in Israel. "When he denies his wife's unreasonable involvement in making appointments, setting schedules, or his ties with various individuals, he knows that he is distorting reality."

Kadmon said that dozens of people are familiar with Netanyahu's behavior: "Too many good people are familiar with the bad stories."

By launching a public libel action against one of her fiercest critics, Netanyahu has effectively ensured yet more public scrutiny of her role.

Her latest move is unlikely to alleviate the political pressure on her husband.