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Is Sara Netanyahu Our Mary Todd Lincoln?

Ever since she first appeared on the public radar nearly 20 years ago, Sara Netanyahu has been a popular target for the Israeli press.

The latest scandal to plague Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s third wife, first reported on by Amir Oren in Haaretz, involves allegations that she pocketed thousands of shekels from deposits on empty bottles that were returned, on her orders, to Jerusalem supermarkets over several years, even though the bottle deposits were state property.

Last week, State Comptroller Joseph Shapira announced his decision to turn over the bottle deposit affair, popularly known now as “bottlegate,” to Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, who will rule on whether to open a formal investigation into the matter.

Married to Netanyahu since 1991, the 56-year-old child psychologist is no stranger to scandal. Last March, she was sued for abusive behavior by the former manager of the Netanyahus’ official residence, who had previously served as her personal bodyguard. In 2010, a former housekeeper in the Netanyahu home sued her for unpaid wages and a list of other matters. Indeed, reports about Sara Netanyahu’s problematic behavior toward household help and her lavish spending habits have been circulating in the media ever since her husband’s first term in office, starting in 1996.

Does the media especially have it in for Sara Netanyahu, or have they always picked on Israeli first ladies? Both are true, says Dr. Ilan Ben Ami, Israel’s foremost expert on the wives of prime ministers. “The Israeli press has always targeted the wives of its prime ministers, but there’s no doubt that the sheer volume of allegations in the case of Sara Netanyahu is unprecedented,” he says.

Part of it, he says, has less to do with Sara Netanyahu herself and more to do with the changing rules about what the Israeli media reports on. “Back in the day, the mainstream media wouldn’t deal with these sorts of stories,” notes Ben Ami, the author of the Hebrew-language “Behind the Great Men: The Private and Public Lives of Israel’s Prime Ministers’ Wives” (Matar Publishing House, 2010). “It was only the tabloids that wrote about these things. But all that has changed.”

Still, he says, Sara Netanyahu’s personality goes a long way to explaining the media’s obsession with her. “There’s no smoke without fire, and my feeling is that you can’t have all these stories circulating without there being some truth to it,” notes Ben Ami, a political sociologist in the department of sociology and political science at The Open University of Israel.

“I do think, and I hate to say it, that Netanyahu is right when he says that the media are using these stories to attack him. Most of the Israeli media do not like Netanyahu, and when they find another angle for attacks against him, they grab it. At the same time, he tries to gain points for himself with these stories when he attacks the media right back.”

Although other Israeli first ladies have come under media scrutiny, notes Ben Ami, it has almost always been restricted to incidents of excess meddling in government affairs and appointments. Only in one case can he recall another prime minister’s wife who made headlines for reasons similar to Sara Netanyahu, and that was Miriam Eshkol, the wife of Levi Eshkol, who was prime minister from 1963 to 1969.

“I found a story published in 1966 about her demanding that a certain very attractive stewardess be removed from a flight that was carrying her husband on an official trip,” recounts Ben Ami. “Almost the exact same story was published in the press in 1996, and that one involved Sara Netanyahu.”

According to Ben Ami, the bottle-deposit affair would be the first time an affair involving a prime minister’s wife became major news during an election campaign.

By far, the biggest scandal involving an Israeli first lady until now was the illegal dollar account held in the United States by Leah Rabin, the wife of two-time Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Her husband ultimately resigned from his first term in office over that affair, taking personal responsibility.

Among the lesser-known stories documented in Ben Ami’s book are reports that circulated years ago about Paula Ben-Gurion, the wife of Israel’s first prime minister, and her tendency to pocket things that weren’t hers.

Most of his research for the book was undertaken before Netanyahu returned to the prime minister’s office in 2009, and therefore, it focuses on Sara Netanyahu’s official role only during her husband’s first term. “I was under the impression that maybe she had learned her lessons and would behave differently when she returned to the prime minister’s residence. I thought it could be another case like Leah Rabin, someone who came back with more experience and was far more mature the second time around,” he says. “But I was wrong.”

To provide context for his book, Ben Ami also explored the public and private lives of American first ladies. If there is one such figure, he says, who reminds him very much of Sara Netanyahu, it is Mary Todd Lincoln, the widow of Abraham Lincoln who was also known for her temperamental behavior. “If you read some of the stories about Mary Todd Lincoln and just substitute the names, it’s amazing how similar they are,” he says.

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