Opinion |

Miss Havisham in the Prime Minister’s Residence

Tchia Dov
Tchia Dov
The young Sara Netnayahu.
A young Sara Netanyahu. Credit: Chen Mika
Tchia Dov
Tchia Dov

For many years after, the neighborhood children would play and try to sneak into the yard of the big, abandoned house, and run away when the old woman would come out after them. She would scream and threaten, ask if they knew who she was, and they would flee laughing. The only guard who still watched over her there would also come out and asked them gently to leave. Try to persuade them to leave her alone, that poor woman, who he said had suffered enough.

She, and her sons and husband, the former prime minister, were supposed to leave the house when the first government was formed in the era that came after him – but she insisted and they stayed. They spent the entire period of the legal proceedings in that house on Balfour Street. Only a small staff of security guards remained with them. Food trays continued to arrive every day, and occasional cleaning ladies arrived one in a while and cleaned the big house as best as they could. As time went on, the maintenance staff were moved to other jobs, and the house was almost completely abandoned.

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When her husband was convicted and went to prison, she insisted on staying.

The Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem Credit: Saar Yaakov / GPO

They sold the house in Caesarea and the rest of their properties to cover the legal expenses and the appeals of the appeals. Their millionaire friends faded away. Some were also indicted, and some wisely chose to keep their distance. The number of security guards went down, and even the Shin Bet security service realized there was no longer any need for massive security. Over the years her sons left; the older one went to America to his friends the evangelicals. He got a job with them and never came back. The other son wandered between jobs, and once in a while came for time and stayed with her when he had no other choice.

The vegetation took over the yard. The gardener who came once a month barely managed to cut the grass. All the roadblocks were removed; the black screens hung up to hide the building crumbled. It was no longer clear who was really responsible for the place. Sometimes a city inspector would come down the street, a new one who didn’t know the house, and wanted to issue a fine for the dirt and neglect. The guards would explain the situation to him, and he’d let it go.

The neglect spread inside the house too. The large spaces for hosting guests were emptied out, and what remained in them disintegrated. The cleaning services ended completely. The generous maintenance budget stopped, and in any case, no one wanted to work for the lady. She continued to keep up only the large dining room: She would dust all the decorative objects and shine all the silver. The official dining service with the state’s emblem on its edges was always on the table, as if it were waiting for high-ranking guests who were coming to dinner. The white tablecloth had long ago turned gray, and she never reached the cobwebs in the corners of the room. But nonetheless, it was important for her that the room remain presentable; she was certain that in just a minute the president of the United States and the first lady would enter, or at least the Micronesian ambassador. She said she was always ready. And just in case something did happen, she kept a few microwave dinners in the freezer, so she would have something to serve.

Sara and Benjamin Netanyahu attend a ceremony at Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital, last year

The newly elected prime ministers preferred to live in their own homes and come to Jerusalem just for work. Every one of them had a nice house and their spouses didn’t want to move farther away from their jobs. Everyone just thought that Israel is such a small country anyway, and the distance to Jerusalem didn’t justify maintaining an expensive and superfluous official luxury residence. A small apartment was built within the Prime Minister’s Residence compound in case the prime minister wanted to stay over for the night in Jerusalem, after an event that ended late, but mostly the compound was used for work.

They preferred to forget about the house on Balfour Street; no one wanted another battle with the family of pretenders to the throne. Everyone decided to wait for the day that the lady would leave – one way or another. The family provided enough scandals even without a violent eviction that would amuse the media. Every time someone brought up the subject, they said it would be better to be patient.

After many years of legal proceedings, when he entered prison, they thought she would understand and leave. But she didn’t. She said she would never leave there, and everyone waited. They knew she was no longer young and preferred to let it go.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara wave following the announcement of exit polls in Israel's election in Tel Aviv, Israel April 2019. Credit: Ammar Awad/ REUTERS

Every few weeks, the lady of the house would get dressed up, take out one of the dinners and go to visit her husband in prison. The last security guard who remained would drive her in his own private car. He took pity on her, and did not want to tell her that the government no longer paid for a driver. He also did a little bit of shopping for her, such as for medicine, and would “forget” to bring her the receipts – because he knew she couldn’t pay. The meager pension she received from the Jerusalem municipality for her time working as a psychologist she usually gave to her husband for buying things in the prison canteen. Moishe, the caterer who supplied the prime minister’s official residence in the past, continued to send her food. The government hadn’t paid for it in a very long time, but he didn’t have the heart to starve the lady. He continued to send her the food and didn’t bill anyone. An act of charity.

Her friends, the wives of the oligarchs and reality-show losers, stopped coming. But after she would call and ask, they would send her a package with clothes. The hair stylist and cosmetician, after they asked for payment, were never invited back. She dyed her hair herself using a home kit the security guard brought her from the drugstore.

She liked to invite him to drink coffee with her and tell him about her golden days. About her millionaire friends, the visit by the president of the United States and his wife, the trips abroad, the honor she received from the these so-very-important people and the expensive gifts they would bring her, because they liked her so much and admired her husband. She would repeat the stories, and he would listen patiently. She was so alone, it was impossible to say no.

Only Ronit the Bibi-ist still came to visit her twice a year – before Passover and before Rosh Hashanah. Ronit would bring her a bouquet of flowers from the supermarket, one of the bunches from the buckets by the checkout counter. And she would sit and listen patiently. Usually she forget to take off the price tag. Sara told her every time about the expensive jewelry she received from her friends back in the good days, and Ronit would promise her that the next time she would bring her a piece of jewelry. But she never did.

(Inspired by Charles Dickens.)



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