The Sara Netanyahu Affair

Nobody disagrees with the prime minister's right to consult his wife. But it isn't customary for a political victory to depend on her authorization.

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The hundreds of thousands of people who voted for Habayit Hayehudi head Naftali Bennett can breathe a sigh of relief. A representative of the Netanyahu family – not the senior one, Sara’s husband – agreed to meet with the rebel after he apparently managed to placate Mrs. Netanyahu.

Bennett, in a noble gesture, is still guarding the secret of his crime. He hasn't shared with the public the story that might prevent his voters from realizing their political strength. “I don’t get involved in gossip,” Bennett says dismissively, as if we were dealing with some family quarrel that had nothing to do with the public.

I don't know what went on between Bennett and Sara Netanyahu, but for hundreds of thousands of voters – those who voted for Bennett and maybe those who voted for other candidates as well – it does matter what their representatives’ relationships are with the prime minister’s wife. This isn’t just “gossip” but a direct and lethal blow to the democratic process.

Prime ministers, presidents and kings confer with their wives, their children and their parents. Elected heads of state also have personal preferences that are not necessarily based on wisdom, the party, or the agenda of their partners in the state’s leadership. Benjamin Netanyahu can play dumb, but nobody disagrees with his right to consult with his wife. Then again, it isn't customary for a political victory to depend on the authorization of a party leader's relative. This does away with the transparency crucial to the decision-making process and sets nepotism as a basic criterion for forming a government.

That is to say, it doesn’t matter then how many citizens voted for you, what your manifesto says or how essential your membership of the government is to promoting its policies. First of all you must clear your name with the family. Bennett’s voters knew about this. They naively thought, like most citizens of the state, that Israel is a republic and not a kingdom. Not every kingdom acts like the Netanyahu family. The wife of the Saudi king doesn’t appoint ministers, nor does Jordanian Queen Rania, not to mention Europe’s symbolic kingdoms.

It was, however, the accepted way of becoming a minister in the Arab republics before they were overthrown. Suzanne Mubarak was more than just an adviser, as was Jehan Sadat. Both of them, according to opposition reports, would dictate who would serve in the government. Leila, the wife of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, appointed and fired ministers, and Bashar Assad’s mother was a necessary stop on the road to appointing ministers or governors.

The difference between these regimes and the Netanyahu regime is that the callous involvement of the leaders’ wives is not a secret there. Another difference is that in these countries it is prohibited by law to insult the president’s family, while in Israel it is permitted to insult the prime minister’s wife and even get into an argument with her. But unlike in the Arab countries, where the punishment for such offenses is known, in Israel the “criminal” in question can only guess at what his punishment will be.

This Israeli brand of craziness is not only about early family vetting of the coalition candidates. Is the extent of the Netanyahu family’s influence on the government’s policies known? What about when it comes to setting national budget priorities? What is the extent of Sara Netanyahu’s influence on the allocations and assistance for certain institutions? Will the dramatic “appeasement” that went on between her and Bennett allow her to call him when he is a minister and ask him for some favor – for the public good, of course? Will Bennett, who has been stung by Netanyahu before, dare to flout her?

This is not “gossip,” as Bennett dismisses the affair. Nor does it harm Netanyahu’s right to confer with his relatives. What would be the point of the stiff regulations for appointing advisers, or the comptroller’s criticism of the decision-making process, if the prime minister’s principle adviser cannot be criticized? If Sara Netanyahu wants to be an influential public figure, that’s her right. But she should spell out her positions, views and agenda to the public. That way the public will be able to judge the prime minister appropriately.  

Illustration Credit: Amos Biderman

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