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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The long-running Sara Netanyahu story started in 1997 with legal claims about her personal conduct. A nanny for the young Netanyahu boys sued her, claiming that she had withheld wages and reporting that she threw shoes at an assistant, complaining that they were cleaned poorly. A year later, a caregiver for Netanyahu’s father claimed that she was forced to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

As time has gone on, it has been suggested that Netanyahu’s demands send major ripples into her husband’s work life.

“The most delicate issues in a foreign visit are issues related to her,” a source in Israel’s Foreign Ministry told the Forward, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the subject’s sensitivity. “These are the most sensitive issues, researched to the finest details.” The source added that there is a general feeling in the Foreign Ministry that officials need to be at their “very best” for any component of a visit involving Netanyahu and to hope that if mistakes happen, they are not related to her requirements.

The relationship between the prime minister and his third wife is a source of major speculation in Israel. He reportedly met her when she was working as a flight attendant on El Al, the national airline. They married in 1991 after a short courtship. Two years later, he publicly confessed to having an extramarital affair, but she stood by him, giving rise to rumors of a pragmatic power-sharing pact that binds them to this day.

The idea of such a pact may seem farfetched, but what is clear is that Netanyahu is Israel’s first very public First Lady. Galia Golan, professor of politics at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, said that before Benjamin Netanyahu’s first stint as prime minister, from 1996 to 1999, prime ministers’ wives (only one had a husband) were far more low key. “It looked like he was importing the American political style of taking his wife everywhere,” she recalled. Today, there is a near-universal understanding in Israel that Sara Natanyahu is intensely involved in her husband’s political work. She is feared by many of his allies, who feel that their continued favor with the prime minister is contingent on currying favor with her.

The Israeli who has followed Netanyahu more than any other is Caspit. He is persona-non-grata to both Netanyahus nowadays, mostly because of his unauthorized biography of the prime minister. But in the past Caspit met with Benjamin Netanyahu despite his wife’s dislike for him. They convened in “safe houses not listed in [Netanyahu’s] itinerary” lest she find out, Caspit told the Forward.

He said: “I have been following this couple and this lady for around 20 years, and I have spoken to most if not all of the people who were there, working with this couple, probably hundreds.”


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