Netanyahu and press do battle — and Israeli people are losing

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Never before in its history had Israel known anything like it.

True, Paula Ben-Gurion was often described as an incorrigible "clafta" (shrew) and Leah Rabin took a healthy share of knocks from the press after her illegal U.S. bank account effectively forced her husband to resign as prime minister in 1977 (actually he took leave until the elections, which Labor promptly lost).

But neither of these precedents even approached the blast directed at Israel's new "first lady," Sara Netanyahu, at the very start of her husband's tenure, in what was instantly dubbed "Nannygate."

The facts of the affair will surely never be known. Nor are they, in the broader scheme of things, particularly important. In short: After being summarily fired and turned out on the street for burning a pot of soup (or so her version goes), 21-year-old Tanya Shaw, a new immigrant from South Africa who had been the Netanyahus' au pair, found her way to the offices of the daily newspaper Ma'ariv and treated it to a scathing portrait of Mrs. Netanyahu as an imperious Simon Legree with the graciousness of a Scrooge and a hand-washing obsession of Lady Macbeth proportions.

The paper devoted four full news pages to Tanya's tale and followed it with similar "testimony" by Heide Ben-Yair, an earlier au pair (likewise a new immigrant, from England), who had lasted a mere week in the Netanyahu household before walking out.

At first, Mrs. Netanyahu left the damage control to the Prime Minister's Bureau, which issued a brief statement claiming Shaw was fired due to "problems of instability" and on the recommendation of "security people" (though the prime minister's security denied saying anything).

But after the story became the talk of Israel, and threatened to cast a pall over the Netanyahus' trip to the United States, Sara Netanyahu decided to take the nanny on.

Granting interviews to the mass-circulation Yediot Ahronot (Ma'ariv's chief competitor) and Israel's two television channels, she portrayed herself as the victim of "lies, fabrications, and nonsense."

"The dash to the media with mendacious stories for the sake of reaping headlines and financial gain is an outrage," she said.

And so it might all have ended. In fact, the entire affair might be dismissed as common gossip or symptomatic of the public's natural curiosity about the lives of "crowned heads" (which has kept the British tabloids in gravy for years).

But in Israel, where the press has traditionally practiced almost prim discretion in handling the private lives of public figures, some observers have a very different take on Nannygate. It is indicative, they say, not just of a changing style in both politics and the media (related to the direct election of the prime minister) but of a more ominous phenomenon: a mutually destructive relationship between the prime minister and the press.

Gossip about Netanyahu's private life, past and present, actually began during the election campaign; it stepped up during the coalition talks (when his wife was said to be intervening in his choice of appointments); and it peaked last week with Nannygate.

Some critics claim Netanyahu himself whet the public's appetite and invited heightened scrutiny first by confessing to an extramarital affair on prime-time TV during Likud elections two years ago, then by over-compensating for the lapse by keeping his wife demonstratively at his side (and forever singing her praises) during the recent election campaign.

Since the election, the Netanyahus have been chided for thrusting their children into the limelight as part of an effort to create the impression of a latter-day "Camelot," while the "first couple" has repeatedly dismissed such criticism and blamed the press for stalking them like paparazzi.

But the Netanyahus' far more serious complaint is that the Israeli media lists heavily to the left, was particularly skewed against him during the election and has trained its sights on his wife now.

Nahum Barnea, one of Israel's leading political columnists, tends to agree — at least that most journalists were anti-Netanyahu (though not necessarily pro-Peres) during the campaign.

"Like many people in politics, [Netanyahu] believes that behind every word in the press is a guiding hand, a plot," wrote Barnea in "The Seventh Eye," an Israeli journalism review. "Paranoia will accompany him into the Prime Minister's Office."

Other journalists see a more sophisticated approach: Netanyahu's attempt to "divide and conquer" the press by exploiting the often savage competition in the field.

"In a certain sense, Sara Netanyahu fell victim to two wars that have nothing to do with her," wrote author and columnist Ehud Asheri in Ha'aretz this week, "One [is] between her husband and Ma'ariv, and the other between Ma'ariv and Yediot Ahronot."

According to Asheri's reading, Netanyahu, miffed by an embarrassing investigative piece in Ma'ariv, broke with the precedent of even-handedness toward the two mass-circulation papers and granted his first print interview as prime minister to Yediot. (He completely stonewalled Ha'aretz, the country's most prestigious paper, whose publisher had run an unflattering "biographical expose" of Netanyahu in his chain of local, weekend newspapers.)

The Prime Minister's Bureau also leaked an important scoop (about his advisers' secret meeting with Yasser Arafat) only to Yediot. Soon afterward, Ma'ariv struck back with Nannygate.

"Ma'ariv is exacting a price for the prime minister's selective media policy," Asheri wrote, "and most of it was paid by the prime minister's wife."

The truly dismaying aspect of this mutual retribution is that it both leaves the press open to outside manipulation and deflects it from its role of relating to leaders according to their policies, not their own prejudices.

In retrospect, Nannygate was less about impetuosity, curiosity, and other common human foibles than about the exercise of raw power.

The mutual suspicion, even hostility, that marks the relationship between Netanyahu and critical parts of the Fourth Estate may, in time, give way to a less personal, more reasonable modus vivendi. If it doesn't, both sides — with the public caught in the middle — will be much poorer for the experience.