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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In Caspit’s account, Sara Netanyahu is the key to understanding one of her husband’s most perplexing missteps following the January 22 election. After the results came in, Netanyahu, whose Likud party won a plurality and the opportunity to form a government, hesitated on the main coalition deals for weeks. Most strikingly, he failed to close a deal with his natural allies, the Jewish Home and Yesh Atid parties. Some observers said that he waited because he wanted to wear them down on their refusal to enter into a coalition that included ultra-Orthodox factions; others said that he wanted to play hardball on ministerial appointments.

Caspit says it was all about Netanyahu herself.

Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett was Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief of staff from 2006 to 2008 and left following a public falling-out with his boss’s wife. Just before the election, he joked that he and Sara Netanyahu had participated in “a terrorism course together.” Then, after the election, the prime minister kept Bennett, whose party came in third, waiting for a meeting as a parade of other, less crucial factions got appointments. Even Zahava Gal-On, the leader of the tiny dovish party Meretz, who had sworn not to enter the coalition, got in before Bennett.

On February 10, Bennett apologized for his pre-election remark about Sara Netanyahu; on February 11 he was finally granted a meeting.

Caspit commented: “The whole nature of the crisis in coalition building is because she decided [Bennett] is not ‘in.’”

The irony, Caspit added, is that her personal dislikes weakened her husband. In Caspit’s analysis, were it not for Netanyahu’s boycott of Bennett, Benjamin Netanyahu could have quickly built a coalition of Jewish Home and several ultra-Orthodox parties, leaving Yesh Atid in opposition. But Jewish Home knew that she would not let this happen, so it made an alliance with Yesh Atid to stick together — an alliance that, once Yesh Atid’s demands were factored in, ultimately made coalition building difficult.

Some see suggestions of such broad influence as slurs. Sara Netanyahu, they point out, is the first prime minister’s wife to work while her husband is in office. Her defenders say that she is focused on her two sons and on her profession as a child psychologist for the Jerusalem Municipality. If she takes an interest in her husband’s activities, they say, it is only natural.

Others challenge the news media’s portrayal of her personality. Shelly Hoshen, founder of the children’s charity Yad B’Yad, which Netanyahu chaired during her husband’s first term as prime minister in the late 1990s, told the Forward of her kindness, saying that she was “a very good volunteer and open to helping the children.”

Haaretz columnist Kobi Niv blamed the media for their negative portrayal of Netanyahu. “The repeated media attacks on the prime minister’s wife don’t teach us a thing about how the country is managed,” he wrote in February. “But they do teach us a lot about the cowardly, pitiful, misogynist behavior of the Israeli media.

“So leave Sara in peace. She’s not the prime minister. Her husband is.”

Contact Nathan Jeffay at jeffay@forward.com


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