Sara and Benjamin Netanyahu
Sara and Benjamin Netanyahu on their way to Washington, D.C. Photo by Amos Ben-Gershom / GPO
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Ha'isha She'ito

(Behind The Great Man: The Private and Public Lives of Israel's Prime Minister's Wives ), by Ilan Ben-AmiMatar (Hebrew), 328 pages, NIS 95

In December 1952, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion sent a harsh letter of reprimand to Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi, the wife of newly elected president Yitzhak Ben-Zvi. The reason: At a ceremony at Jerusalem city hall, not only did the president speak, his wife spoke as well. That was improper, wrote Ben-Gurion, to the point of harming the status of the president. The president's wife, who was insulted, replied: "Please understand me ... I can't serve as a golem, a doll who receives flowers." As usual, Ben-Gurion was firm, if not biting. "You are not a partner to the presidency," he wrote to her in a subsequent letter. "The people choose only one president. And it is not your job to express this symbol." He gave an example from his own home, writing: "Paula is not a partner to this mission. She is not involved in those things ... because there's only the prime minister, and this position is not a family affair."

The extended exchange of personal letters reveals not only the frustrations of an active woman, one of the founders of the pre-state Jewish defense organization Hashomer and the founder of a farm in Jerusalem that provided agricultural education for women, who was pushed to the sidelines while her husband served as president, itself a largely ceremonial role. The letters also begin to address a question that has yet to be resolved: What is the status of the women behind the men, whether in the President's Residence or the Prime Minister's Office?

The correspondence between Ben-Gurion and Rachel Ben-Zvi is not included in "Behind Great Men: The Private and Public Lives of Israel's Prime Minister's Wives," but that doesn't diminish the value of Ilan Ben-Ami's book, which for the first time touches on a large body of questions about the status of the Israeli prime minister's wife. Anyone who is looking for juicy new gossip about a particular political spouse won't find it here. Most of the anecdotes in the book were collected, through intensive research, from open sources, including newspaper articles and books.

Not just a supporting actor

The hedonistic goings-on of our incumbent prime minister, as recently presented in a television investigation by journalist Raviv Drucker on Channel 10, could have served Ben-Ami well, since in almost every occasion documented in the report the prime minister was not alone. The woman with him is no mere supporting actor, but a figure who plays a central role in Benjamin Netanyahu's controversial conduct all around the globe.

Ben-Ami, a political sociologist at the Open University of Israel, wrote the book to document the public and private lives of the wives of all 11 male prime ministers (some of whom served multiple times ): Paula Ben-Gurion, Tzipora Sharett, Miriam Eshkol, Leah Rabin, Aliza Begin, Shulamit Shamir, Sonia Peres, Sara Netanyahu, Nava Barak, Lily Sharon and Aliza Olmert. Lily Sharon died in 2000, before her husband entered the Prime Minister's Office, but Ben-Ami decided to include her in the book because, as he puts it, "Her spirit hovered over the PMO during all his years in office." Incidentally, the only woman who has served as prime minister, Golda Meir, arrived at the PMO in 1969 without a spouse in tow. Her husband Morris died in 1951, after they had lived separately for several years.

The book therefore has a clear gender orientation: It deals with women only. Gender studies scholar Hanna Herzog has labeled the public activities of most of these women as "an expansion of their domestic activity," rather than as political activity. Leah Rabin was the chairwoman of Alut, an advocacy group for autistic children, and Nava Barak headed Elem, which helps at-risk youth. Sonia Peres did not seek to lead an organization, preferring to be a rank-and-file volunteer, feeding disabled children and even washing floors. Aliza Olmert wanted to help refugees and children at risk. "When you come as the wife of the prime minister, there is almost no door that doesn't open," Ben-Ami quotes her as saying. In Olmert's case, he writes, art critics argued that the doors that opened for her also helped to sell her paintings.

How much influence?

What's more interesting than the overt public activity of the prime ministers' wives, though, is their involvement in their spouses' official and political activities, and more specifically, their influence on their husbands' policy and conduct while in office. It should be noted that turning the spotlight on the private life of a prime minister's wife - who, as Ben-Gurion said, was not chosen for the job by the people - is not indulging in mere gossip or voyeurism. The prime minister's spouse is an inseparable part of the immediate surroundings of the person who heads the executive branch and has ultimate responsibility for the affairs of the State of Israel.

As such, the premier's wife can have great importance: She has his ear, can inform him about what is happening in the various circles with which he has no direct connection, beyond the borders of the political world, provide him with feedback about decisions, speeches and events. There is no doubt that she could potentially influence his decisions.

Just how much influence did each of these wives have? The book does not really provide an answer to that question, for several reasons. For one thing, "influence" is never an easy thing to measure, because who can plunge the depths of the prime minister's soul, or that of anyone else? Was it Aliza Olmert's dovish views that influenced her husband to abandon the policy he had favored since the days of the Merkaz Hofshi party slogan, "Liberated territory shall not be returned," or was it his independent reading of the political situation that led him to follow in the footsteps of right-wingers who abandoned such slogans, including Moshe Amirav, Aryeh Naor, Meir Sheetrit and Ariel Sharon? To take another example, it is highly doubtful that Paula Ben-Gurion played a part in her husband's decision in 1955 to end the sabbatical he took in Sde Boker, even though the dirt in the kibbutz kitchen drove her crazy from the start.

The other reason it's hard to draw unequivocal conclusions regarding the wives' influence is an absence of reliable inside information about what happens behind the locked door of the prime minister's home. Here and there we find flashes of information in the diaries and letters of David Ben-Gurion, of which Ben-Ami does not always make full use. But there is only one comprehensive document that reveals in real time a significant element of the close symbiosis between an Israeli prime minister and his wife: the personal diary of Moshe Sharett, one of the most fascinating political texts ever published in Israel (run to look for it in used-book stores! ). The editor of the diary, Sharett's son Yaakov, mercilessly exposed his father's inner thoughts and fears, as well as the way his wife Tzipora took part in all his dilemmas and crises. In the absence of such revealing diaries, though, it is hard to know what really happens between other political figures and their spouses.

As a correspondent who covered the Knesset and the cabinet and reported from Washington for several years, I was exposed from time to time to conversations between prime ministers and their wives. In early 1979 Washington, at the height of one of the crises in the peace talks with Egypt, several of my colleagues and I were called to the U.S. president's official guest residence, Blair House, where Prime Minister Menachem Begin was staying at the time. His media advisor sat us down in one of the plush living rooms. Begin was sitting in one of the corners, at a desk made of expensive wood, and writing an announcement. When his wife entered, he turned to her almost joyfully: "Aliza, you're going to have to prepare your gefilte fish! The president and his wife will be coming to us for a meal on Friday."

And that's how we discovered that U.S. President Jimmy Carter had decided, just a few hours earlier, to embark on a hasty trip to Israel and Egypt to try to save the talks. What we didn't know is what might have taken place in private. Did Aliza Begin, as was claimed, have reservations about her husband's willingness to respond to U.S. pressure to give up Sinai, while the prime minister preferred the moderate viewpoints of Moshe Dayan, Ezer Weizman and Elyakim Rubinstein? The conversation about gefilte fish and other things heard in the room didn't tell us anything about that.

'I'm the prime minister's wife!'

At a time when the media are attacking Sara Netanyahu practically nonstop, the book reminds us of how involved Miriam Eshkol was in the work of her husband, Levi Eshkol. As in Netanyahu's case, this was the prime minister's third marriage. He was 68 years old when he married Miriam Zelikovitz, a librarian in the Knesset library who was precisely half his age. As Miriam put it, she was "a secretary, caregiver, research assistant, whatever necessary." The military secretary at the time, Brig. Gen. Israel Lior, wrote in his diary that she would shout at the staff: "I'm the wife of Prime Minister Eshkol, I'll throw you out of here!" Miriam eventually admitted her active intervention in elements of ongoing activities of the prime minister office, but said she had no influence over his decisions. She quoted her husband as saying: "Take advice from your wife, and do the opposite." That, of course, is also a kind of influence.

Miriam had a central role in her husband's "kitchen cabinet," although the term itself had to wait, perhaps for gender reasons, for the days of Golda Meir. In contrast to Paula Ben-Gurion, who tried to taper off her husband's hatred of Menachem Begin, Miriam Eshkol encouraged her husband to toughen his stance toward David Ben-Gurion so he could demonstrate leadership and be seen as a strong prime minister (at least that was the impression of Teddy Kollek, who was at the time the PMO's director general) during the 1954 Lavon Affair, according to Ben-Ami ). In May 1967 Miriam was a prominent opponent of taking the defense portfolio away from her husband and transferring it to Moshe Dayan, and Levi surprised her when he agreed to the move.

Times change, though. When Levi Eshkol was prime minister, from 1963 to 1969, it was the (now defunct ) anti-establishment newspaper Haolam Hazeh that reported regularly, and cynically, on the prime minister's wife and her mannerisms. In December 1997 it was the mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth that devoted an extensive cover story in its weekend magazine to the exploits of Sara Netanyahu.

"Behind the Great Man" tells us much more about Netanyahu than about any of her predecessors, primarily because Ben-Ami could draw on so many embarrassing incidents that have been documented in newspapers and books. Through its reporting, photography and cartoons, the Israeli press have directed more of their venom at the Netanyahus than at any other prime ministerial couple.

One such embarrassing incident cited by Ben-Ami, which took place at a conference in Portugal during Netanyahu's first term, was described by a Likud minister and appears in journalist Orly Azoulay's 1999 book "The Man Who Defeated Himself." "One day Netanyahu came back to his room late, because his talks with world leaders had lasted longer than planned," writes Ben-Ami. "Sara, according to the minister's story, refused to open the door for him. The security guards tried to persuade her, but she, on the other side of the locked door, shouted that for her part he could stay outside all night. ... Only hours later did one of the security guards succeed in convincing Sara to allow the prime minister to enter his room."

On the other hand, some might be disappointed by the absence of revelatory information about the contents of the secret agreement that was reportedly signed by the couple after the "hot cassette" affair of 1996, when a fear of extortion caused Benjamin Netanyahu, then a candidate for the leadership of the Likud, to appear on national TV and confess to an extramarital relationship, with a woman who turned out to be political consultant Ruth Bar. But it isn't just the media that have undergone a process of tabloidization in recent decades, as reflected by a greater emphasis on telling personal stories than on verifying whether the stories are true. Politics has also changed. Benjamin Netanyahu and his family are clearly a product of the "new politics," in which the platform is sidelined by the slogan, ideology is replaced by public opinion polls, and the party is supplanted by the personality of its leader. So is Defense Minister Ehud Barak; it's not clear whether he was influenced by his first wife, Nava, but he gained quite a lot of political traction from the marriage, before they divorced in 2003. The reason: Nava was seen as an ideal, presentable and pleasant woman who refrained from intervening in government matters.

In the United States, where this new politics began, the media and scholarly preoccupation with the personality of public figures has intensified. Public discourse of this type also includes a process of demythologizing officeholders, who in the past were treated with a type of awe by journalists and researchers, who didn't touch on their "private lives." As James Barber ("The Presidential Character" ) showed in terms of U.S. presidents and Naomi Levitsky ("Ha'elyonim" ["His Honor"]) showed in terms of Israeli Supreme Court justices, the personal biographies and immediate surroundings of leaders can be a useful and reasonable tool with which to assess them.

While the candidates themselves are the most important subject to focus on, analysts should not neglect the kitchen, the living room and the bedroom from which they emerge in the morning and to which they return at night (or in the afternoon, as in Yitzhak Shamir's case; he was strict about taking an afternoon nap at home almost daily, on orders of his wife Shulamit ). The prime minister's wife sometimes protects her husband the way a lioness protects its cubs, serving as a place where he can rest his head at the end of a day of security threats, budget wars and coalition crises. And sometimes she may be a burden that makes his task more difficult.

Even if the book contains no definitive answers to some of the questions about the status and conduct of a prime minister's wife, Ilan Ben-Ami has, for the first time, opened a window on a subject that deserves further research.

Dr. Rafi Mann is a historian and media researcher who recently completed a study of David Ben-Gurion and the media.