Understanding Sara Netanyahu

The prime minister’s wife seems to be striving for a European level of professionalism that is alien to the reality that is Israel.

David Bachar

There’s something unpleasant in the preoccupation with Sara Netanyahu. In every new scandal, there’s an echoe of one of the most beautiful sentences written by Nobel Prize winner S.Y. Agnon: “In life, there’s never a depth so low you can’t sink any lower.”

We’re not just talking about the stories about her but also about the responses. The by-now regular shockwaves are met by the usual defenders with, “It’s the left, it's the media.” They even present the marvelous sandwiches she makes as evidence.

The discussion about Sara Netanyahu makes one nauseous, not only because it mostly consists of intimate gossip but also because it is an aggressive collective dig into another person’s motivation.

Like most Israelis, I don’t know the truth. She may be a difficult person. But, by the same token, when someone is labeled difficult, people will jump on the bandwagon.

What is clear, however, even in light of what’s been published about her, is that she is not particularly unusual among the spouses of heads of state. Paula Ben-Gurion, for example, interfered more than a little in her husband’s affairs. She was the one who urged him to crash a conference in which Shimon Peres was trying to convince Ben-Gurion’s supporters not to leave Mapai. Peres had no choice but to backtrack.

Ben-Gurion himself accused Levi Eshkol’s young wife of being a negative influence. And these examples are only from our own backyard. Nancy Reagan’s affinity for astrology was one of the best-known tidbits of White House gossip in the 1980s.

That doesn’t mean the media can't run stories about Sara, but it does mean that this “evil gossip” shouldn’t bother us, as citizens worried about the proper conduct of the affairs of state.

Despite her formal status, Sara Netanyahu is the weaker and more convenient target for trashing, given her public image. Therefore, here is an attempt to understand her, based on the assumption that the nasty stories about her are true.

The pattern emerging from the stories of her behavior seems to be an effort – both naïve and stubborn – to solidify her position as the wife of the prime minister and to run the prime minister’s residence in a European way, culturally and professionally.

If that is the case, one can read most of the harsh criticism leveled against her quite differently, for example, the widely-cited demand that the domestic help call her Mrs. Netanyahu. Given the Israeli culture of familiarity, the demand raises one’s hackles, but would any member of Carla Bruni’s staff have been offended by having to call the boss Madame?

On the face of it, her comment to the housekeeping manager that he wasn’t conducting himself as is fit in the Elysee Palace strikes us as absurd. Why would anyone compare the Israeli prime minister’s residence with the Elysee? On the other hand, why not? Why not strive for that level of professionalism? Moreover, the desire to be European is one of the hallmarks of Herzl’s brand of Zionism, so beloved of Benjamin Netanyahu.

Let there be no mistake: Some of the claims of employees in the prime minister’s residence touch on aspects of labor law, human conduct and other components that jurists will have to sort out. But it is also clear that, in principle, the problem with her demands – about the milk, the quantities of food, the maintenance of the house and so on – is the gap between her desire for the Elysee and the difficulty in realizing that desire in the reality that is Israel.

This would seem to lead to two sad conclusions: One, Sara Netanyahu comes off as being incapable of understanding that gap. Two, we are incapable of understanding the frustration that such a gap is liable to cause any sensitive human being who lives her life under the constant scrutiny of the media.