Is Sara Netanyahu the Erratic Power Behind Bibi's Throne?

Fashion Faux Pas Is Tip of Iceberg for Israel's First Lady

Bibi’s Svengali? Sara Netanyahu was pilloried over the dress she wore to the Knesset opening ceremony. But beyond gossip, critics voice serious concerns about the outsized role she plays in controlling her Prime Minister husband.
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Bibi’s Svengali? Sara Netanyahu was pilloried over the dress she wore to the Knesset opening ceremony. But beyond gossip, critics voice serious concerns about the outsized role she plays in controlling her Prime Minister husband.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published March 11, 2013, issue of March 15, 2013.
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Of the many explanations for the long, drawn-out and chaotic coalition negotiations that have followed Israel’s recent election, the most intriguing is that they have more to do with Benjamin Netanyahu’s home life than with his political aspirations.

According to one of Israel’s top journalists, it is his wife’s publicly known antipathy toward one of his main potential coalition partners that pitched Netanyahu into the mire of complications in which his negotiations remained stuck as of the Forward’s print deadline.

“She’s a lot more powerful than him, because he’s afraid of her,” said Ben Caspit, author of an unauthorized biography of the prime minister and, until his recent departure from the Israeli news outlet Ma’ariv, one of its most prolific journalists. “He will never do anything without her approval. He can’t meet people without her approval.”

When the new Knesset was inaugurated February 5, the big headline was the dress that Sara Netanyahu, the prime minister’s wife, chose to wear. One fashion critic famously said that the dress, semi-transparent in parts, made the 54-year-old resemble an advertisement for Michelin tires.

It was a rare moment. She has, for a decade and a half, been treated by a large part of the Israeli public with disdain based on unconfirmed accounts of her erratic behavior, undue political influence and rumors about her personality. Now, suddenly, she was caught on camera.

Netanyahu’s documented offense was, at worst, a fashion crime, but it provided an outlet for frustrations about the many other aspects of her conduct that irk citizens.

“She’s what the media needs — she’s famous for doing stupid things, or things perceived to be unwise,” said Hebrew University political scientist Tamir Sheafer, who is an expert in political communication. “She’s perceived to be too powerful and too involved in the decision making.”

Others counter that such criticism of Netanyahu — a professional child psychologist — is unfair and say more about a misogynist media than about a woman who is the first prime minister’s wife to work outside the home.

Sometimes, suggestions about her influence have come from the prime minister himself — who said that she prompted him to make the deal to free Gilad Shalit, the soldier captured by Hamas whom Israel eventually freed by swapping 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. Sometimes the hints come from his aides. Orit Galili, a senior staff member, commented in 2011 that she is “a full partner in writing his speeches.”


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