Opinion

Netanyahu’s Attempt to Smear Rival’s Wife Shows He Still Doesn’t Understand His Religious Allies

It’s not rare for religious politicians to act in a non-religious way in their private lives. Did Netanyahu actually think he would gain votes by revealing that Naftali Bennet’s wife had worked in a non-kosher restaurant?

Naftali Bennett gives a speech, Jerusalem, October 15, 2018.
Emil Salman

Five or six years ago, around the time that Naftali Bennett was taking over the nearly defunct Habayit Hayehudi and rebranding the fusty old National Religious Party into something that young and hip Israelis could feel comfortable voting for, a photograph of an old menu, from a Manhattan restaurant, began circulating among journalists and political insiders. It was a silly bit of gossip. From the dishes made of various parts of pig and shellfish on the menu, it was clear that no Orthodox Jew would have ever crossed the threshold, let alone eaten there.

But in tiny letters at the foot of the menu, were the names of the senior culinary staff, including “Pastry Chef - Gilat Bennett.”

I didn’t think this demanded any comment and to the best of my knowledge none of my colleagues thought there was anything newsworthy about the fact that the wife of the youngest leader of an Israeli religious party had worked at a non-kosher restaurant.

>> Analysis: Unable to charm the media, Netanyahu sought to control it

Anyone who knew anything about Bennett was already well-aware that he himself had spent part of his twenties not wearing a kippa and that his wife was secular. It actually added to his attractiveness as a politician trying to open up the ranks of a hidebound party. After all, he had brought in the secular Ayelet Shaked as his number two. It simply wasn’t a story. Certainly not something that could be damaging in any way to Bennett.

At least one person thought otherwise. On Wednesday night, TV journalist Amit Segal reported that, in 2015, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had tried to get his alleged partner in crime, Bezeq owner Shaul Elovitch, to run a report on his Walla website about Gilat Bennett’s unkosher past.

Elovitch claims that in this case, unlike apparently hundreds of others in which Walla’s editors were directed to alter their news coverage according to the whims of the Netanyahu couple, he refused to do so.

There are a lot of things to learn from this anecdote (which interestingly has not been denied by Netanyahu’s office). It is further proof of how the billionaire Elovitch put his news organization at Netanyahu’s disposal, in return for the prime minister’s alleged intervention on Bezeq’s behalf in key regulatory decisions. It is also proof that contrary to some of the claims already made by Netanyahu’s proxies, he himself was involved in directing Elovitch: it wasn’t “just Sara, and Bibi didn’t know.”

Beyond the possible legal ramifications, it says something about the depth of the antipathy Netanyahu feels towards his young right-wing rival, that he actually went to the trouble of trying to get his tame tycoon to publish a story on Bennett’s wife.

But what struck me about the story is that Netanyahu, despite having been a close ally of religious parties for his entire political career, still knows them so little, and understands them even less, to think that this could have been damaging to Bennett. Did he actually think that potential Habayit Hayehudi voters, upon discovering that the wife of the party leader had worked in a treif kitchen would switch to Likud? Or that the party members would in the next leadership primary depose Bennett?

You can say a lot of things about the nationalist-religious voters of Habayit Hayehudi but they certainly aren’t all stupid and they are all aware that on the spectrum of piety, Bennett is at best “orthodox-light” and he never pretended to be otherwise. Neither does Gilat, who is rarely seen in public, feel the need to pretend that she is any more religious. She doesn’t cover her hair or dress in a particularly demure fashion that would make you think she is something she isn’t. Which is why her husband’s own response to the revelation that Netanyahu had tried to slime her was also a bit disappointing.

"I feel sorry for you, Mr. Netanyahu," Bennett tweeted, "You took the trouble to personally call the owner of Walla to hurt my wife, and this is a despicable and cowardly act." Up to this point, good for him. No reason to hold back. But then it seemed as if Bennett was himself apologizing. "I married Gilat, a wonderful woman from a secular and ethical home, and together we founded a wonderful Zionist religious home. My family is the pride of my life, do not apologize to me, I am not interested, apologize to my wife." What was the middle bit about?

Why did Bennett feel the need to give any details of his wife’s background or say what kind of a home they “founded”? Whose business is it? And what if they had decided to raise their children in a more pluralistic and progressive manner, that would have had space also for the values of Gilat’s “secular and ethical home”? And why the need to add the word “ethical” to begin with? Can’t we assume that secular Israeli families are “ethical” to begin with?

One of the few things I like about Israeli politics is that politicians and journalists, alike, rarely put up any pretenses of ethics being part of the game. I don’t think that in all my years of reading and writing about Israeli politics I’ve ever heard an Israeli politician being approvingly described as having especially ethical values. Certainly, not since Menachem Begin resigned in 1983 (OK, I wasn’t yet a journalist then, I was ten, but I remember it happening).

The best you can hope to say about an Israeli politician is that he or she really believes in an ideology, and even that’s rare and unexpected. There’s nothing rare about religious politicians not acting in a particularly religious way in their private lives. Their rivals and journalists, when they know about it, which is often, rarely, if ever “out” them about it. Even Elovitch thought that reporting about Mrs. Bennett’s culinary past was something which was simply not on.

I don’t have any expectations from Netanyahu on these matters. But I find it profoundly sad that Bennett, who – whatever you think of his politics, has not yet lost his connection with the world outside the political bubble – didn’t simply say “what my wife cooks in her private life and especially her level of religiosity, are simply no-one’s business.”