Israel’s Ambassador-designate to Italy Compared Sara Netanyahu to a Monster in 1996

Benjamin Netanyahu has been fighting for the apportionment of Fiamma Nirenstein, a former Italian MP, despite the local Jewish community's opposition. Criticism written some 20 years ago could be cause for embarrassment in the prime minister's bureau.

Israel’s ambassador-designate to Italy Fiamma Nirenstein and Sara Netanyahu.
Moti Milrod and Amos Ben Gershom / GPO

The choice of former Italian MP Fiamma Nirenstein as Israel’s next ambassador to Rome has been controversial up to now primarily due to opposition from the Italian Jewish community and various Italian government ministries. Now, it appears that comments that Nirenstein wrote in the past as a journalist who covered Israel for Italian media outlets might also cause displeasure in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bureau.

In an article she wrote in 1996 and appeared on Nirenstein’s official blog site she relates to the prime minister’s wife, Sara Netanyahu, in the harshest terms. Criticism of this sort is almost never voiced even in the Israeli media, which generally don’t hold back when it comes to the first lady. [UPDATE: An hour after the story was published in Haaretz, Nirenstein removed the post from the website.]

In the article, written in Italian under the title “A monster dressed up as the first lady – Is the prime minister’s wife right for the job?” Nirenstein related a number of alleged incidents involving Sara Netanyahu’s conduct in the initial months of Benjamin Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister in 1996.

Nirenstein noted that Sara Netanyahu was trying to compare herself to former American first lady Jacqueline Kennedy and was making use of her own family for political purposes, exposing her children to the camera, a common practice in American politics. “Not only is she not on that level, but in so doing, she is running the risk that her choice will backfire on her,” Nirenstein wrote.

Nirenstein also quoted remarks purportedly made by two childcare staff people who worked in the Netanyahu household at the time. “They recount terrible incidents of miserliness and obsessive neurosis inside the Netanyahu home,” the Italian journalist wrote at the time.

After describing several other examples in which Sara Netanyahu was allegedly involved during that time, such has threatening mothers whose children pushed her sons in kindergarten, Nirenstein asked, referring to the first lady also by her maiden name: “Is it possible that Sara Ben-Artzi Netanyahu is really such a monster? Is it true, for example, that when a toothbrush cup broke, she summoned the renovator of the Israel Museum, who couldn’t believe what he was hearing, and asked him to fix it and to give her a 50-shekel ($13) discount?”

The Netanyahu's playing in the snow at their home in 1998.
Ya'acov Saa'r / GPO

Further on in the article, Nirenstein was even harsher: “Fulfilling the role of first lady requires you to be at least a bit like the inventor of the genre, Eleanor Roosevelt,” a reference to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s wife, who became first lady in 1933. “It appears that, even if she recently received a degree in psychology, Sara is not like that,” Nirenstein continued. “They say that mainly she isn’t fond of women and always speaks about them as enemies or as stupid and that she objected to the appointment of Limor Livnat to the new cabinet,” a reference to the female communications minister in Netanyahu’s first cabinet.

Prime Minister Netanyahu announced the appointment of Nirenstein as Israeli ambassador to Rome back in August of last year. Nirenstein, 71, worked for years as a journalist. Between 2008 and 2013, she was a member of the Italian parliament affiliated with the right-wing party of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. She was also deputy chairperson of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the Italian parliament.

Haaretz reported on Sunday that Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi recently conveyed a discreet message to Netanyahu asking him to reconsider Nirenstein's appointment. At a briefing of diplomatic reporters Netanyahu denied received such a message.

An Israeli source said that the message from Renzi was conveyed after his office realized the problems that could arise if Nirenstein became ambassador. Italy’s Jewish community was unhappy with the choice, and the Italian foreign and defense ministries opposed it.

A senior official at the Foreign Ministry said last week that Nirenstein's appointment was approved by the Civil Service Commission and will be brought in the next few weeks before the cabinet for approval.