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JERUSALEM - It's been a taxing time for Benjamin Netanyahu. He has had to soothe fears of a possible war with Lebanon.

He has made an uncompromising statement about the future of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. And then, of course, there's the knotty matter of his wife's domestic arrangements and the employees she is accused of bullying.

First, an Israeli newspaper revealed in a front page story that Sara Netanyahu's former housekeeper, Lillian Peretz, was filing suit for 300,000 shekels ($114,000) damages from her ex-employer for "humiliating" her and paying her less than the minimum wage.

Try as she did to brush the allegations off, the First Lady could not make them go away.

Then, as if her reputation weren't in enough trouble, another publication claimed Sara Netanyahu had fired "an elderly Jew, about 70, a bereaved father who used to rake leaves and carry out basic gardening chores for less than the minimum wage".

To fire a man whose son died fighting for his country would be considered harsh anywhere.

But in Israel, where society's identification with fallen soldiers and their parents is at the core of its identity, what Netanyahu stands accused of doing is seen as unspeakably cruel.

Now the Netanyahu family is fighting back, with a 1 million shekels lawsuit for defamation against the newspaper concerned, Maariv. The problem is it may all be too late.

For accurate or not, a monstrous picture has emerged in recent weeks of how the child psychologist and former airline stewardess, the third wife of the hardline Prime Minister, handles her domestic staff.

And some commentators, particularly those who also dislike her husband, say this is not just an Israeli take-off of Upstairs, Downstairs but a risk to the public's well-being and even national security.

They charge that Sara Netanyahu determines appointments of government officials and meddles in affairs of state - something her spokesman denies. Netanyahu, for his part, is being depicted as deferring to his wife.

"He's there to satisfy her, not to work for us," Maariv's Ben Caspit, one of Israel's most prominent journalists, alleged yesterday in response to the lawsuit.

The gardener allegations would have far less traction, of course, without the previous stories about the housekeeper, which first appeared in Yediot Ahronot newspaper.

Peretz, who worked at the Netanyahus' weekend residence in posh Caesarea, made a serious allegation against the First lAdy: that she forced her to work on Saturdays even though the employee observes the Jewish command not to work on the sabbath.

And that was not all.

Peretz, who has received death threats against her family since the publication of her account, alleges Sara Netanyahu called her at 2am to ask why a pillow case did not properly cover a pillow.

She also said that Netanyahu forced her to bring four different sets of clothes to work.

A spokesman for the Netanyahu family, Shaya Segel, denies the allegations, adding: "There are innumerable people who worked with [Sara Netanyahu] who can attest to the warm and concerned treatment they received."

The Prime Minister made an angry intervention at a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel last week, demanding the press "leave my wife and children alone". But the denials have not helped them win a PR war that has so far gone badly.

Twice as many Israelis believe Peretz as do Sara Netanyahu, according to a poll, which also found that 56 per cent believe she is involved in the Prime Minister's decisions on public appointments.

- INDEPENDENT