Benjamin Netanyahu Is a Feminist - at Least, When It Comes to One Woman

Whatever his views on feminism, Netanyahu has named no women to senior positions in his office nor consulted with any. In fact, it's hard to find a woman he relies on other than his wife.

Are there any women in Netanyahu's inner circle?
Reuters / Pool

In late May, the Walla website reported a shocker: A disabled Jewish woman was raped by two Palestinians who told her she deserved the attack because she is a Jew.

Internet roiled and boiled, and even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hastened to write on his Facebook page: “This is a shocking crime that requires condemnation from wall to wall, but such condemnation is somehow not heard – not in the media or across the political spectrum.”

How embarrassing – a day later the police announced that the rape never was, Netanyahu was forced to retract and admit that he should have waited for the police to investigate before mouthing off. All the Palestinians marked by the prime minister as rapists can do is thank the lord they don’t live in darker times, where a pointed finger like that would end with them hanging from a tree.

Netanyahu’s reaction to the story was so extreme and unusual, that one has to wonder if he only cares about sexual attacks on women when they can be harnessed to savage an enemy, either the press or the left. In other cases, he’s been mum.

Take the affair involving his former chief of staff Natan Eshel, who pleaded guilty to indecent conduct in a plea bargain in early 2012, after a female staffer complained he had taken improper photographs of her, stalked her and spied on her text messages and email. Netanyahu never commented on that. Nor did he sever ties with Eshel even after the latter was forced to resign. After the 2013 elections, Netanyahu asked Eshel to head coalition negotiations on his behalf; to this day Eshel calls himself a close friend of the family.

Emil Salman

Yet Yoaz Hendel, the premier’s staffer who exposed the Eshel affair, heard from Netanyahu that the premier had lost faith in him, and quit.

Appearing in uniform

A much more serious affair involved one Ilan Samuel, the former prime minister’s driver, who was convicted last September of raping and molesting seven underage girls. Samuel served as a driver in the most tightly secure space in the land, though complaints about attacks on minors had been made more than a decade ago. He would come to court hearings on his case in uniform.

Samuel had been brought to the office by his distant relative, Ezra Saidoff, deputy director for operations at the Prime Minister’s Office. Last year Saidoff was accused of knowing about the charges against Samuel and not telling anyone. We cannot assume that the prime minister knew about the crimes committed by his driver – but he hasn’t said a word about that matter, either.

Here’s another case. The police recently recommended indicting Gil Sheffer for sexual harassment – a man suspected of similar offenses when working as a chief of staff for Netanyahu. The complainant, a Japanese artist, even wrote a personal letter to Netanyahu describing Sheffer’s alleged deeds, to which the prime minister did not respond.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Gil Sheffer in 2012.
Marc Israel Sellem

It isn’t just cases of harassment and inappropriate behavior towards women that Netanyahu avoids discussing. He doesn’t seem to think at all about the advancement of women, or prioritizing gender issues.

The prime minister names no females to senior positions in his office. He does not consult with women – it’s hard to find one he relies on other than his wife. He hardly meets with women.

Israel’s prime minister is surrounded by men, in effect missing one of the great social revolutions of the last decade.

“Bizarrely, we do not see Netanyahu addressing issues of the status of women at all,” says MK Shelly Yacimovich, even though the topic has been a hot one in Israel for some years. Usually Netanyahu can spot a hot topic a mile away, but when it comes to sexual crimes, from harassment to rape, including affairs everyone is talking about, the PM stays mum, she confirms.

Shelly Yacimovich
Emil Salman

Not only does Netanyahu do absolutely nothing to advance women, Yacimovich charges: He stood firmly behind Natan Eshel who had harassed a woman at work – and worse, ousted people who had helped the victim, including Yoaz Hendel and others, even though they were from his very own political camp. “This isn’t just silence,” Yacimovich charges. “This is action. Anti-feminist action.”

Netanyahu broke his silence about gender inequality in Israel last September – and again only in the context of fending off a political attack. Of all things, it was during his speech to the UN: He complained about the UN attacking Israel precisely for its poor record on women’s rights. Israel, the PM said, has already proved women can be pilots, prime ministers, Knesset speakers and presidents of the Supreme Court.

The F-word

After the speech, in a televised interview with Walla, reporter Tal Shalev asked if he would call himself a feminist. “Enough. The answer is yes. The truth is yes – if the intention is looking for equal opportunity in terms of capabilities ...,” Netanyahu wriggled.

Which is strange, “because clearly, he has changed for the worse,” says Yacimovich. “In the past he had been quite ‘feminist.’” Two of the three women who complained about Moshe Katsav, the Israeli president who did time for rape, had also worked with Netanyahu and had extolled the difference between the two men: Netanyahu is super correct as an employer and a gentleman, they told Yacimovich.

In one conversation when he was in the opposition, he told her, “Some men don’t get it, that sexual assault isn’t about sex, it’s about power.” That is a purely feminist position, Yacimovich says – yet somehow he is now regressing while Israel is making strides forward in women’s issues, especially regarding sexual violence.

When Eshel was forced out of the Prime Minister’s Office after all, he wasn’t replaced by a woman. When Yoaz Hendel, Gil Sheffer, Zvi Hauser, Harel Locker, Ari Harow and others and others and others left, they were not replaced by women either.

We asked Netanyahu’s cronies why his office has no women in senior positions. They wondered why we were picking on Netanyahu; other prime ministers like Ehud Olmert or Ariel Sharon rarely hired women either. The thing is, again, that times have changed; what had been a norm 20 years ago is unacceptable now. And dozens of men have been replaced in Netanyahu’s environment in recent years; not by a single woman.

Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked delivers a speech during a conference in Budapest, Hungary, Monday, June 6, 2016.
Tamas Kovacs, MTI via AP

There were women in his distant past; Odelia Carmon had been his media adviser when he led the opposition in 2006. Ayelet Shaked, now the justice minister, had been his chief of staff until 2008. But there have been none in recent years. Carmon and Shaked both left over conflicts with Sara Netanyahu.

“Netanyahu never had a problem with women working for him,” says a source who worked with him. “Women who worked with him reported there was no sexual tension. But it is clear that Sara demands [the right to] approve the manpower working with him in the office and there were women who were thrown out because Sara didn’t like them.”

Maybe he really has no place for women or maybe it’s that he only likes advisers of a certain type. “Netanyahu is surrounded by Anglo-Saxons with kippas,” says a (female) Likud veteran. “He thinks they’re clever. That is his weakness.” That group excludes not only women but 99% of the population but, she points out, in fact is the Likud has been in charge of Israel for about 20 years, and it has precious few women among its leadership. The party central committee has some women but they’re mostly “wives of” more powerful men in the party, she adds.

In effect, the Likud is just another Middle Eastern political party controlled by men in suits.

Not within a mile

At Netanyahu’s office, some think this is funny. “I once complained about how the office conducts itself. They told me, ‘So come work with us – well, actually they’d never let you within a mile of the office,’” says one woman.

“When Netanyahu talks about women, he sounds as feminist as they come, but in practice there are no women in his high-level surroundings, and the few that were ran aground,” says a former (male) office executive. The sentiment towards women at the Prime Minister’s Office is not good, he says. “Ayelet Shaked was considered an enemy of the people” over there. It isn’t that women’s names don’t come up for jobs: they’re just not picked, he says. (Women in fact have been suggested for historically “male” positions like national security adviser.)

Pressed on the issue, Netanyahu notes that the antitrust commissioner is a woman; and the Likud has female ministers, including Miri Regev; the treasury (below Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon) is run by women, including the accountant-general (though they were named under the former finance minister, Yair Lapid). The 20th Knesset has 28 females out of 120 Knesset members.

Which just goes to show how weird it is that Netanyahu’s environment is so bereft of women.

Until year-end 2015 there was one woman next to him: Perach Lerner, liaison between the Prime Minister’s Office and the Knesset, who was suspended after an inquiry. She is to be replaced by another woman, Rivka Falloch. Netanyahu also has a branding adviser named Tammy Hauspeter. The common factor among those and a few more women around the PM is their close relationship with Sara Netanyahu.

The case of the Authority for the Advancement of the Status of Women is a painful example of how narrow political interests around Netanyahu hurt the cause.

Until last January it was led by Vered Swid, an adviser to the government in Sharon’s tenure. As she told “Uvda” in January 2014, shortly after her appointment was extended again, she got a call from Sara Netanyahu announcing that she, Vered, should thank her and her husband for her job.

Later, after a professional interview she gave to the TV chat show “London & Kirschenbaum,” she fielded a screaming phone call from Sara Netanyahu; ultimately, in late 2015, Swid had difficulty getting another contract extension. In January 2016, she was out. The authority was transferred away from the Prime Minister’s Office, is headed by an acting head and is not, in practice, functional any more.