Breakfast with the big beasts: Odelia Karmon's life in the political jungle

Book reveals back-stage dramas of Israel’s top brass


By Jenni Frazer and Anshel Pfeffer, April 5, 2013
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Karmon with Ariel Sharon at his farm (Photo: Courtesy of Odelia Karmon)

Karmon with Ariel Sharon at his farm (Photo: Courtesy of Odelia Karmon)

For the past seven years she has been known as “O from the Transport Ministry,” though her true identity was an open secret in the Israeli media and political establishment.

Last week, Odelia Karmon, the veteran press adviser who was the first woman to go to the press about the serial sexual assaults by former President Moshe Katzav, went public in a book and interviews in which she spoke of her ordeal over 20 years ago in the then Transport Minister Katzav’s office.

Her book charts 25 years in which she served as a close adviser to some of Israel’s most senior politicians, including Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon.

Ms Karmon began her career with the current prime minister, then Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, when as a young Israeli student in New York she found work as the embassy’s deputy spokesman.

In early 1988, she followed Mr Netanyahu back to Israel and worked with him in the Likud preliminary elections and was then the foreign media spokesperson of Likud’s election campaign.

After the party’s electoral success, she became press adviser to Mr Katzav, then one of the rising stars of the party. Aged 29, married with a young daughter, she joined him at the Transport Ministry.

The story of how the minister tried to convince her to have intimate relations and when rebuffed, isolated her within his own office, and then later sexually assaulted her, was broken in an interview with the Jewish Chronicle in January 2011, but the book – The Confidante — is the first time the painful details have been told in her full name and as part of a wider context as an insider’s story in Israeli politics.

Karmon with Benjamin Netanyahu (Photo: Courtesy of Odelia Karmon)

Karmon with Benjamin Netanyahu (Photo: Courtesy of Odelia Karmon)

Ms Karmon’s decision to go to the press at an early stage of the Katzav saga bolstered the testimony of the first complainant, a young woman who had worked in the president’s office, and emboldened others to come forward.

One was a former aide at the Tourism Ministry, whose story of how she had been raped by the minister was the key testimony that brought Katzav’s conviction and a seven-year prison sentence. Ms Karmon was also a supporting witness at the trial.

Her book gives a fascinating inside look at the personal side of Israeli politics and intriguing psychological portraits of its leading figures.

On Mr Netanyahu, with whom she worked for a second time in 2006 when he became head of the Likud again and leader of the Opposition to the Kadima government, she writes: “Bibi doesn’t manage, he lets everyone do what they want. He mixes between his aides and asks a number of them to fulfil the same task, moving the baton from one to another in the middle.

“Without meaning to, he creates tension and chaos among his people. On the one hand he is terribly dependent, calling dozens of times a day in desperate neediness and on the other, he can cut you off immediately. It’s most difficult for those around him that he forgets a person once he’s finished his role in his life, as if they hadn’t gone the way together.”

His wife, Sara, she describes as having “a very complex soul, full of contradictions and contrasts and so given to extreme mood swings. Her fear of entering a room unaccompanied, her unquenchable need for attention and compliments, her inability to organise herself and arrive at events on time, made me feel she was like a small and lost girl in need of protection.”

After the conclusion of the Katzav rape trial, she wrote a master’s thesis in cognitive behavioural psychology — “postponed reaction to sexual harassment in the workplace”, and now works as a cognitive psychologist.
Her book, she says, is a twofold account: first, of her 25 years at the heart of the political establishment. And second, a way of spotlighting sexcual harassment in Israeli society.

She is well aware that many readers will have combed the pages of The Confidante looking for salacious dirt on politicians. “But that is not my message. For me it was much more important to highlight awareness of sexual harassment, and to make women aware. I tried not to judge the politicians. The truth is there, but I didn’t want to serve up dirty stories. Everyone can grasp what these people are about. If I had concentrated on the sordid details, the focus would change, from research to gossip.”

Ms Karmon quotes Nietszche on politicians: “Politicians put people into two groups — instruments and enemies.”

For her, Benjamin Netanyahu, for whom she worked twice, 20 years apart, is an exact illustration of this maxim. “But people used Bibi quite as much as he used them, because they enjoyed his aura.”

She knows that Mr Netanyahu’s own reputation has been somewhat spotty over the years, but insists: “This book is about my experiences and only refers to what happened to me. He never behaved inappropriately to me.”

Her own politics are the antithesis of all the right-wing politicians whom she served. “Not only did they know I was not right-wing, they used to joke about it. But since I began to work in politics, Israel has always had a right-wing government and what I cared about was being both useful and professional”.

Now, she says, since the advent of Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid into Mr Netanyahu’s latest coalition, she senses “a lot of hope in the atmosphere. This government is creating a new freshness and optimism in the Israeli public.”

Nevertheless, Odelia Karmon had one favourite boss: Ariel Sharon. “He had true authentic leadership. He made decisions and could carry them out. He had both inner and outer strength, to execute his beliefs. This is leadership.”

Last updated: 7:45am, April 5 2013