Sara Netanyahu, First Lady and Enigma No. 1

Israelis have powerful emotions about the prime minister's wife. Popular opinions range the gamut from a demented Lady Macbeth to an unfairly slimed family woman. And no, the dress didn't help.

Over the course of history, humanity has suffered at the hands of some truly evil women.

Queen Mary I of England persecuted Protestants, executing so many of them in her quest to turn England Catholic that she forever earned herself the nickname "Bloody Mary." Jiang Qing, wife of Mao Tse-Tung, was one of the driving forces behind China's Cultural Revolution, responsible, along with her husband, for the deaths and persecutions of countless millions. Elena Ceausescu, the wife of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, bathed in a gold tub and treated her country's finances like her own little piggy bank. Yoko Ono broke up The Beatles.

And then there's Sara Netanyahu, who threw a shoe at a housemaid! And she has hideous taste in clothes! And she doesn't let her husband talk to people she doesn't like! And she secretly rules Israel behind the scenes!

You get the point. You might think it's a joke, but to many Israelis – Sara Netanyahu is completely wrong.

It would be a gross understatement to say they simply don't like her. Oh, no. They loathe her, the way that she (maybe) loathes housemaids.

Many despise her. Detest her. And in equal measure, they fear her. They hate her clothes; they hate her face; they hate her words. They have been mocking her incessantly for the better part of two decades. Yet at the same time, they ascribe tremendous power to her, to the point that any self-respecting conspiracy nut might be a little skeptical.

It is "common knowledge" in Israel that Sara Netanyahu is the real prime minister, pulling her husband’s strings and the levers of power. Israelis think of her as a mix between a clown puppeteer, Lady Macbeth and Augustus Caesar’s wife Livia Drusilla, most famously portrayed as a conniving and power-hungry matriarch by Sian Phillips in "I, Claudius."

Someday, historians will have to account for Sara Netanyahu. Is she really the Lady Macbeth she is thought to be, secretly but defiantly plotting and running the show – not behind her husband's back, but tohis face? Or is she just a child psychologist and mother of two from Jerusalem whose husband happened to become very powerful, exposing her to a cruel, politically motivated media campaign?

In other words, is she the victim of a witch hunt, or is she the witch?

“Sara: The Musical,” coming no time soon

Pending the work of historians, Sara Netanyahu, born Sara Ben-Artzi, is an enigma. She has become the stuff of legends, captivating and nauseating Israelis at the same time, the way Eva Peron did Argentineans and Imelda Marcos did Filipinos. Does this mean we'll be seeing "Sara: The Musical," complete with an Oscar-stealing scene where she thanks the people of Israel despite their hatred of her, sometime soon? Probably not.

But nevertheless, there is a story to tell here. Actually, there are two possible stories. One is the unofficial story told by many journalists of a woman who is so obsessed with power she had her husband sign legal documents giving her partial control over his affairs, who forbids her husband from working with or even meeting with people she doesn’t like, including his former chief of staff and the current chairman of the Habayit Hayehudi party, Naftali Bennett, and who abuses the hired help.

The other more official story is of an ambitious, hard-working woman who became a faithful and supportive wife, maintained her own demanding career and found the strength to forgive her husband and continue to serve as his loyal consort after his infidelity was humiliatingly revealed.

Reality often seems to point to the first story. It was hard not to cringe this week, as Bennett – newly minted as an member of Knesset and eager to enter Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition, along with his 12 seats – made the radio and television studio rounds, repeatedly apologizing to Sara Netanyahu for a sarcastic comment he made during the election about "being in a terror class together" with her. Apparently it was because of this crack that Netanyahu waited until weeks after the election to meet with Bennett for coalition talks, even though Netanyahu couldn’t wish for a more natural partner.

But Bennett’s history with the Netanyahu goes back further. He served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff when Netanyahu headed Israel’s political opposition and the two men parted ways on a very bitter note, supposedly because Sara Netanyahu disliked Bennett, who she accused of leaking information to the press.

"The attack on Sara Netanyahu is out of place. She is a good woman, who loves her husband," said a humbled Bennett last week in a televised interview with Channel 10, before apologizing for his aforementioned joke. A day later, he finally secured a meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu – for the first time in five years.

Then there's the feature about the Netanyahus in July’s Vanity Fair. In it, contributing editor David Margolick describes a peculiar scene he witnessed in November 2011: Sara's father, Shmuel Ben-Artzi, had just died, and ministers, tycoons and other national leaders flocked to the “shiva,” or Jewish mourning ritual.

According to Margolick, they were not there for the prime minister – they had come to see Sara, not so much out of love or respect. "I have no choice," he quoted an Israeli tycoon as saying. "She's running the show here in Israel. She can make or break anyone."

A month before Margolick's article ran, Sara’s first interview with an international news outlet in 12 years appeared in the German Sunday newspaper Bild Am Sonntag.

"My first impression," wrote Bild's Stephanie Bilges, "is that she appears compassionate, cheerful, spirited. Her blond hair frames her face, she wears a hint of lip gloss, accompanied by high heels, her handshake is firm. Her eyes sparkle … No reservation, no air of stiffness." The Bild profile paints a highly flattering portrait, even quoting Benjamin Netanyahu as saying it was his wife who convinced him to accept the deal to release kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. “Think of that boy in that dark dungeon, having no hope, no light. Think of him as if he were our son,” he recalls her saying in the article.

Which portrait is accurate: the domineering ruler or the loving mother with the sparkly eyes?

Sara Netanyahu's biography offers few clues. She was born in 1958 in the town of Kiryat Amal to Shmuel and Hava Ben-Artzi. Already ambitious as a teenager, she worked as a junior reporter for the youth magazine Maariv Lanoar. In the Israel Defense Forces, she served as a psycho-technical evaluator, later earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Tel Aviv University and then a master’s degree in psychology from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She married Doron Neuberger. They divorced after seven years.

During the 1980s, she held a number of jobs, including as flight attendant for El Al. It was in this position that she met Benjamin Netanyahu. They wed in 1991 in Netanyahu's parents’ house in Jerusalem and went on to bring two children, Yair and Avner Netanyahu, into the world.

The power-sharing agreement

In 1993, Sara Netanyahu and her husband entered a pivotal phase of their political life, involving her first collision with the media and the mythological agreement.

It started with an anonymous telephone call, where the caller told Netanyahu that if her husband did not withdraw from the Likud leadership race, a tape proving he had an illicit affair would be leaked. Benjamin Netanyahu hastened to the Channel 1 television studio and in a panicky broadcast admitted his affair and accused "criminal elements within the Likud" of trying to blackmail him.

It was during this time that the alleged agreement between Sara and Benjamin Netanyahu was signed: a notarized piece of paper that supposedly regulates the power balance between the two, giving Sara Netanyahu overwhelming influence over her husband’s career.

Does the tape exist? Is it nasty rumor? Many journalists insist it’s real. None have seen it.

But Sara Netanyahu's love-hate-hate-hate-hate-hate relationship with the Israeli public truly began when her husband was first elected prime minister in 1996. She quickly became a political liability for him, derided in the press as a controlling, obsessive wife.

Fuel was added to the fire in 1997, when Tanya Shaw, a nanny, sued Netanyahu for allegedly withholding her wages.

Other former employees told horror stories too. They alleged that Sara abused them, screamed at them and even threw her shoes at the maids.

That's all it took to brand her as evil. From then on every, media story about Netanyahu was negative, and there were many.

She was the subject of intense debates, revealing exposes and brutal satire. She tried to sue her way out of the public-image disaster, claiming many stories about her were false and malicious, but to no avail. In shows like “Hartzufim,” Israel's version of the British puppet show “Spitting Image,” she was portrayed as crazy, unstable and domineering, even though her character hardly appeared on screen.

In 1998, Netanyahu’s first husband planned to publish a book about their marriage – but she was able to prevent it from ever appearing, first through the court, then through a 93-page letter to Neuberger's parents and finally by convincing her ex-husband to change his mind.

In 1999 and 2000, the Netanyahus were ousted from the throne for the first time and faced with legal troubles after it was reported that they got free work from the contactor and mover Avner Amadi, allowing him to work on their private home and charge their state expense account. Also, the police claimed the couple illegally removed gifts worth hundreds of thousands of shekels that they had received during Netanyahu's premiership from the prime minister's residence. They were never charged, but former Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein was highly critical of their behavior.

In the aftermath, Benjamin Netanyahu took some time off from politics, but the media never forgot about his wife. In 2002, the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot – which had previously published a seven-page expose on Sara Netanyahu – ran a transcription of a conversation between her and a Likud member named Shimshon Deri on its front page.

"Bibi is a leader of international scale," she said, according to the report. "He's too big for this country. Everybody here wants to be slaughtered and burn? Fine, why does he have to try so hard? We'll move abroad, and this country can burn. Without Bibi, the country would not last." Naturally, the piece did not help her public image.

'Sara, tell him!'

But still, people supported Benjamin Netanyahu. It is the great paradox of his political career that while his wife is undoubtedly one of the most unpopular people in Israel, he has on more than one occasion been among the most loved.

During his 2009 campaign, Sara Netanyahu was completely absent. No rallies, no photo ops, no television advertisements featuring Netanyahu the family man. On the popular satirical television show “Eretz Nehederet,” she was portrayed a full-fledged homicidal lunatic.

But Netanyahu was quick to take control after the elections. If in the past she settled for being the wife – "Sara ordered pizzas," Benjamin Netanyahu told student hunger strikers in 1998, trying to get them to eat – this time she was able to have her close confidant and right-hand man Natan Eshel appointed as Netanyahu's chief of staff. Sara Netanyahu, it was often reported, was really running the show through Eshel, who reported back to her.

Her influence grew so powerful, in fact, that it’s possible to view her husband’s second term as prime minister as her first.

Over the last four years, there has been a series of reports about her increased involvement with her husband's decisions. Sometimes, like in the case of Gilad Shalit, the stories came from Benjamin Netanyahu himself. Other times, they came from the media or other politicians. Margolick, in his Vanity Fair piece, wrote, "It’s amazing how many otherwise sane Israelis see her Lady Macbeth-like hand in every corner of her husband’s life and work – whom he hires, what he does and doesn’t do, whom he can and cannot see.

It is often said that Sara Netanyahu “has something” on her husband, because of her decision to stick by him after the highly publicized affair he admitted to early in their marriage, Margolick noted. He also mentions the supposed contract, "drafted by a former attorney general of Israel."

By this time, Netanyahu's Lady Macbeth image has already become folklore. People know she runs the country – or at least assume she does. They try to laugh about it. During the height of the social protest movement in 2011, when hundreds of thousands were marching in Tel Aviv, some were seen holding signs that said: "Sara, tell him!"

And then she...

By now, Israelis seem to have made peace with Netanyahu’s existence. They can't stand her, but they still vote for her husband. When Eldad Yaniv, the lawyer to Israel's rich and famous turned anti-corruption crusader, uploaded a video on YouTube revealing details about her alleged interference in Benjamin Netanyahu's work and claiming the true prime minister of Israel is her and not him, no one batted an eye. Many watched it – more than 150,000, to be exact – but their reaction in the election turned out to be a collective, apathetic shrug. In the last election campaign, Sara Netanyahu was all over the place. No need to hide anymore.

The media still tried to bring her down, reporting about her control of the prime minister's staff, her veto over political appointments and the people he is not allowed to see and is forced to see incognito so she won't know – but the public wasn't biting. In 2011, Channel 10 reporter Raviv Drucker revealed the Netanyahus' luxurious, jet-setting lifestyle, painting the first family as faux-aristocrats travelling around the world free of charge, thanks to the generosity of rich friends. The report brought to light Sara Netanyahu's bloated expense accounts, but nothing came of it.

In 2010 and 2011, the media tried to bring back a familiar hit: Lilian Peretz, the Netanyahus' former housekeeper, decided to sue the couple and told a tale of abuse, misconduct and inhumane treatment. In September 2011, following the Nepalese caregiver’s lawsuit describing her inhumane treatment at Sara Netanyahu’s hands, she went to the press, telling Channel 2 news, "No stranger can ever understand the sort humiliation and pressure [she put me through]." But still, the people did not stir.

Not, that is, until the dress.

Oh yes, the dress. Come on, we have to talk about the dress! The truth of the matter is no one really knows what series of thoughts led Netanyahu to wear that see-through, unflattering, lacy black dress, more befitting Britney Spears circa 1999 than an overweight middle-aged prime minister’s wife, to the Knesset’s inaugural session on Feb. 5. For someone who's been a target for gossip mongers since the early 1990s, it was akin to drawing a huge bull’s-eye on her back. Was she taunting the media? Was she making a political statement against the ultra-Orthodox, forcing them to come to terms with the female body and a woman's right to choose? Or is her taste in clothes really that hideous (during a televised interview in 2011, she wore a leopard jacket. Seriously, look it up)?

Whatever the case may be, the whole thing caused an uproar that was both appallingly misogynistic and somewhat just, with internet memes popping up like fresh daisies and satire shows having a field day. The dress seemingly caused more uproar and public anger than political staffers had been able to drum up in years of trying.

Coincidentally, or not, the same week the entire country criticized her taste in clothes and mocked her figure, a flattering picture of her wearing a bathing suit in her younger days hit the Internet and instantly went viral. In the picture, taken in 1985, before she met Benjamin Netanyahu, Sara Netanyahu is seen with her back to the camera, wearing a striped one-piece and looking over her shoulder at the camera.

Standing there, she looks fresh and nubile, with a sparkle in her eye that exudes confidence and ambition, bringing to mind a line Bob Dylan once wrote about a different Sara: "So easy to look at, so hard to define." She looks like someone Israelis might have liked, had they gotten to know her. 

Emil Salman
AP