Analysis

Netanyahu Can Solve His Wife's Problem With One Sentence

Rubbing elbows with Trump, Putin and Modi, the Israeli prime minister has positioned himself as a central player on the world stage – a stark contrast to his troubles at home

Illustration: Sara Netanyahu screams as her husband shakes hands with Putin.
Amos Biderman

It’s impossible not to be bowled over by the international status that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has acquired in the past decade. He’s a central player on the world stage. There is not nor has there ever been a leader of a country of eight million people who is capable, within a two-week period, of being received royally in India – a country for which a state the size of Israel is like a mere statistical error in its yearbook – to host the U.S. vice president at home, to meet the next day with the American president himself (and along the way to hobnob with leaders of the most important countries in Europe), and then to hop over to Moscow for an almost routine meeting with President Vladimir Putin.

This is the Netanyahu of his fourth term. He devotes 101 percent of his professional time to foreign affairs and security. That tendency intensified exponentially in the past year, the year in which the police have been investigating him with respect to a number of cases. He doesn’t forgo a single international platform. His office works overtime to arrange his visits abroad. His global itinerary is being set with a view toward his possible indictment and is intended to bolster his image as a legendary leader, a giant of his generation known around the world, a strategic asset to his people and his country – so that replacing him would be calamitous for Israel’s future.

The globe is his chessboard; his colleagues are the pawns. It makes no difference what some of them think about him, if they tolerate or believe him, or whether they want to see him leave the arena. They're at his beck and call. It’s impossible to say no to the prime minister’s wife (in the words of the suspended deputy director general of the Prime Minister’s Office)? Well, that’s even more true about her husband. With all due acknowledgment of the difference.

Which brings us to the incomprehensible, mind-boggling disparity between Prime Minister Netanyahu and – the Hebrew term for his title, as head of the government: rosh hamemshala Netanyahu. From the summit of international statesmanship he dives time and again into the muddy depths of his own private sea. The slow-burning investigations are hounding him. His wife shames him. His firstborn son heaps disgrace on him. They send him scurrying to his Facebook page to defend himself, counter-attack, present himself as a victim.

On Monday at 6:28 A.M., in response to the release of the tape of his screaming wife, and not long before he took off for Moscow, he uploaded a clip containing the usual accusations about his blood being spilled and his rights being trampled. In the 2009 recording, she is heard berating a media adviser for not ensuring that her professional background as a psychologist was mentioned in a gossip column in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth whose publication he had arranged.

“What’s the big deal with that tape?” he asked. “Who hasn’t lost their temper and said some words they didn’t mean?” That was how he described the outburst of almost bestial screeching that dropped a whole country’s jaw and echoed in the major world media. His public response was comparable to describing a nuclear blast as a firecracker.

It’s 6:28 A.M., and he’s already dressed and made-up. But the thick stuff smeared on his face didn’t hide the pallor, the bleary eyes, the bags. How many minutes did he sleep that night, if at all?

Sara Netanyahu's recording (Hebrew)

Following the recent revelation of a tape of his son Yair, describing a rowdy night out on the town at a strip joint, the premier uttered a kind of apology. In the present case, however, a decision seems to have been made that any expression of regret or sorrow would create a crack in the wall of denial that he and his wife’s lawyers have been trying to build around the allegations that she abuses the staff at their Balfour Street residence. The employees regularly mention bloodcurdling screams when they complain about Sara Netanyahu. A case in point is the latest lawsuit, filed by Shira Raban, who may use the 2009 tape as evidence in court.

Her husband could defuse the Sara land mine in a minute, if he wished: He has to admit publicly that his wife has a problem. There is no need for him to be explicit; he can be gentle in his language and leave the interpretations to others. A statement like that would instantly change the discourse relating to her and, to a certain extent, relating to him as well. She would no longer be a target of ridicule: On the contrary, empathy would be her lot. No more tapes would be made public. The media would get off her case. Such a statement would have a positive effect on her legal situation and perhaps on his, too.

But instead of doing what’s called for, he repeatedly entrenches himself behind a untenable and ridiculous narrative that always boomerangs: Sara just got angry, like everyone else. And Yair is a guy with “principles.” And the tapes are a product of wiretapping, whose disseminators are out to topple the right-wing government and Likud. And if the media got its hands on a tape of the son or daughter of a different politician, it would never be made public. And so on.

He’s not talking here to the public. Not even to his political base, which is ready to buy every bit of nonsense and is in his pocket anyway. These messages are dictated to him at home, and with them he’s thrust into the one-way realms of Facebook and Twitter, and with them he returns home to the person who’s waiting for him.

Four comments on the tape

1. Sara’s 55 seconds of fame start with an unclear remark: “We need to help the Darfur refugees,” she’s overheard saying, apparently mimicking someone. She continues, “I am doing that! As an e-du-ca-ted woman! A psy-cho-lo-gist! B.A., M.A., that’s it!”

Here’s the explanation: The object of the contempt displayed by the prime minister’s wife was her predecessor, Aliza Olmert, wife of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. On the day the item about Sara that opened the gates of hell was published in a gossip column in Yedioth Ahronoth, another article appeared somewhere that lauded Mrs. Olmert’s work on behalf of asylum seekers.

Sara Netanyahu, who is not known for empathizing with the accomplishments of others, called media adviser and family friend Shaya Segal, who had sent an item about her upcoming visit to the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance to the Yedioth gossip columnist. And the rest, as we’ve heard, is hysterics.

The entire “conversation” with Segal – if that’s the right word to describe it – lasted 20 minutes. It began in a reasonable way, in Sara terms, but very quickly went downhill.

2. The Lady demanded that Segal scold Yedioth Ahronoth’s editor (for deleting her title as a psychologist from the item Segal had submitted), as though he were yet another of her victims in the official cuckoo’s nest on Balfour Street. The editor did not undergo a scolding, but miraculously, a correction did appear.

On the day of the royal visit to the music academy, the following item appeared in the Yedioth column: “A fundraising event for the Academy of Music and Dance in the capital will be held today in the Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem, to create scholarships for underprivileged children and students. The evening is taking place under the auspices of the prime minister’s wife, Sara Netanyahu, who is employed as a psychologist in the public service in the Jerusalem Municipality.”

The item was graced by a flattering photo of a beaming Sara. Thus, Yedioth Ahronoth’s extremely full compensation to the Lady for the mental anguish she suffered included a visual bonus that wouldn’t have shamed Bibinews (as the pro-premier, freebie newspaper Israel Hayom is sometimes dubbed).

3. Shaya Segal, who died eight months ago, and his wife Saraleh, were close friends of Bibi and Sara. Segal, who owned a large advertising and PR agency, took a lot of media fire over the years for defending the couple in their endless entanglements and snafus. He took the slings and arrows, the ridicule and scorn. “You don’t abandon friends,” he said when asked, as he was hundreds of times, why he was humiliating himself for the two, who never paid him for his services. “Money” was apparently a dirty word, a heretical notion in their relationship. That they should pay?? Why??! He, Segal, should pay them for the privilege of being allowed to be close to them.

Years of exploitation and abasement ended when he finally cut them off, years before he died. The tape in which he’s heard pleading, trying to get a word in edgewise amid the freaked-out cyclone, is melancholy testimony to what he and people like him have been compelled to endure, and still are. Segal was a strong person, independent, well connected in top political and economic circles. May God have mercy on the maids, the cooks and the drivers serving Balfour Street.

4. The tape waited in the newsroom of Walla! News for almost a week, until the timing was right. The chief editor, Aviram Elad, didn’t want to broadcast it when Netanyahu was on a state trip abroad. And he’s abroad all the time. Elad spotted a splinter of opportunity at midday on Sunday, after the prime minister’s return from Davos and a day before his visit to Moscow. The tape was broadcast on the 2 P.M. newscast on the website. Until a year-plus ago, the site was considered the internet twin of Israel Hayom from the standpoint of its coverage of Sara Netanyahu and her husband. The reverberating report shows that that bad and deplorable period is gone – forever, let’s hope.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein.
meged gozani

Usual trajectory

The day on which Prime Minister Netanyahu called then-Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin after the 2013 election to inform him that he would no longer have that title in the incoming Knesset, is known in the Rivlin household as the “Black Sabbath” (echoing an event in Israel’s pre-1948 history). Yuli Edelstein, the current speaker, probably won’t get his dismissal call on the Sabbath, but his fate looks pretty much sealed. He’s followed the trajectory of many good people before him: Previously a Netanyahu confidant and ally, Edelstein is now a threat and a nuisance who has to be swept aside. How poetic it will be if, like his predecessor, he too finds himself in the President’s Residence, in the summer of 2021.

Until recently, Edelstein was comfortably paving his way to that position, or at least trying to get a shot at it, against MK Isaac Herzog and possibly MK Amir Peretz (both from Labor). A few months ago, leaks began to trickle to the effect that Edelstein might actually be a possible successor to Netanyahu. The speculation was that the current speaker would be called to the flag already in the present Knesset as a kind of compromise candidate, if the prime minister were forced to resign.

Edelstein took all this in stride, and even began to examine seriously the idea of competing for Likud leadership in the post-Bibi era. And that did not go down well in the Prime Minister’s Residence; Edelstein had entered a minefield. From a figure of consensus, he became a target for elimination.

The tape broadcast this week on Kan, the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation, in which Edelstein is heard slamming Netanyahu during a private meeting for his divisive and provocative behavior in the Knesset, spooked the boss and his close circle. Netanyahu concluded that the speaker – whom he appointed and for whom he ousted Rivlin – was subverting him publicly and already running his campaign for party leadership. Heads have rolled and dreams been shattered for far less in the top ranks of Likud.

Only two party figures criticized Edelstein publicly. One was Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, who is once more groveling at the feet of the “great leader” – as she styled Netanyahu after his visit to India. The other was MK Oren Hazan, who has a personal vendetta against Edelstein, who removed him as a deputy Knesset speaker in 2015 after an investigative report by Israel Television News (formerly Channel 2 News) revealed his details of his unsavory behavior in a Bulgarian casino.

For his part, Netanyahu, who has a lust for revenge, recently revived the scenario of how he would assume the role of keynote speaker at the torch-lighting ceremony on Independence Day eve, which has always been the exclusive purview of the Knesset and its speaker. The idea has come up before; it was Sara Netanyahu who craved the honor and broached the notion to Regev, who heads the ministerial ceremonies and symbols committee.

In that earlier round, Edelstein objected and threatened, and a security problem arose: If the prime minister begins coming to Mount Herzl on Independence Day eve, it would be necessary to close the site to visitors during Memorial Day, the day before. Bereaved families would not be able to visit the graves of loved ones buried in the large military cemetery on Mount Herzl. The scheme was shot down, but now it is being rehatched. The best estimate of yours truly is that it won’t come to fruition, and that Netanyahu will make do with speaking at the other abundant events marking the country’s 70th anniversary. Sara, to her chagrin, will have to sit in a less honorable spot than the Knesset speaker’s wife Irena, during the much-viewed torch-lighting event.

MK Tamar Zandberg.
Olivier Fitoussi

Practical challenge

Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg, 41, feels the winds of change. She’s convinced that the time is ripe. That this is her hour. Like Labor MK Shelly Yacimovich, who defeated MK Amir Peretz, and like Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who defeated Zevulun Orlev, each to become the leader of their respective party – she wants to end the six-year term of Zehava Galon. One generation shall pass, another shall come in its place.

Galon twisted the arm of the party’s convention and forced it to revise the constitution and allow all registered members to elect the leader in the primary planned for March 22. Zandberg climbed aboard; if she’s the last to get off – as the new leader – that will be the mother of every ironic twist of fate.

The rules of the game in the left-wing boutique party are different from those in every other party, meaning that the race lacks thunder and lightning in media terms. Still, the things mentioned here that Zandberg and her associates have to say are a very harsh and until now unheard indictment of the current leader.

Under Galon, the challenger maintains, Meretz is behaving as though it was born to be in the opposition, as though that is its default place. It’s a defensive, apologetic, self-righteous left, which prefers to sit in the gallery and analyze the game instead of taking the field and suicidally charging the goal.

“When your message to your voters is that you will never be part of the government, because you rule out this person or that person – in the end you get four-five seats,” Zandberg said this week. “I want us to be players, to climb down from the tree,” she added. Meaning what, I asked her.

“For us to be part of the next government, on the assumption that it will be led by Avi Gabbay [Labor] or Yair Lapid [Yesh Atid], we need to have more seats – nine or 10 – and that’s possible,” she said. “The prime minister-elect would have to call on us, because without us he won’t have a coalition.”

Okay, that’s clear, but then what, I asked Zandberg. You would immediately declare that you won’t join a government with Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman and Bennett, and you will thus force Gabbay/Lapid, or whoever, to pass you over and look for other partners.

“If we have more seats than Lieberman and are summoned to [help form] the coalition before him, we won’t have the right to disqualify him,” she replied. “Let’s not forget that he is ready to vacate Nokdim [the West Bank settlement where he lives] in exchange for a two-state peace agreement. There will be no more a priori disqualification of anyone,” added Zandberg. “A coalition of which we are a part would have basic guidelines whose content we will be able to influence. Whoever agrees to sign will not unacceptable.”

Meretz’s leadership change will be more than a generational shift; it will be a revolution of consciousness. From its romantic period, Meretz would leap into the practical era of realpolitik, Zandberg will assert in her campaign. Enough with the purism, she will declare; it’s time for pragmatism.

“We need to be practical. When Meretz runs fine-toothed combs over all the political players and subjects them to endless tests, in the end it’s Meretz that is left out,” she said.

It was a singular experience, a revelation: to sit with a left-wing politician, to converse comfortably about Lieberman, who’s undoubtedly a major demon in the eyes of the Meretz electorate, and not hear the words “racist,” “Arab hater,” “extremist” or “corrupt.”