It’s fairly customary for world leaders to reach out and congratulate new players who win big elections and stride onto the international stage. It’s far less common for their wives to do so, and odder still for their prime minister husband to publish the details of their “heartfelt and warm” telephone chat on his personal Facebook page.
But that’s what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did, posting a detailed report of such a conversation on his Facebook page, illustrated with a photo of his wife next to the image of American future First Lady Melania Trump, wife of President-elect Donald Trump.
“This evening my wife Sara spoke with Melania Trump, the wife of the president-elect of the United States. The conversation between them was heartfelt and warm. Mrs. Trump said that she looks forward to our visit at the first opportunity and that there will be wonderful relations between our countries and our families.
"Among other things, they discussed the great challenge of raising children under the spotlight that accompanies their fathers who were elected as world leaders. Additionally, they discussed the great importance of emphasizing family time as part of their role as mothers in order to enable their children to grow up in a normal way like all their friends.”
Understanding the rather gushy display of international female bonding in the prime minister’s account becomes clearer when one understands the relationship – or, rather, the lack of any relationship – between Sara Netanyahu and Michelle Obama over the eight years their husbands have been heads of state of their respective countries.
Certainly, the icy freeze in communication between the two's husbands means that it’s not exactly a surprise that they aren’t close now. But a look back shows that the distance between the current first lady and the wife of the prime minister predates the Obama-Netanyahu clashes on issues like the Iran deal. After being politely but consistently held at arm's length by Michelle Obama, one can see why Sara Netanyahu is happy that Melania Trump is showing signs of reciprocating her friendly overtures and wants to tell the world.
Sara Netanyahu and Michelle Obama's relationship got off on the wrong foot in May of 2009, just a few months after Netanyahu took office as prime minister, and planned his “getting to know you” two-day visit to the White House, accompanied by his wife. It was reported in the Israeli media that Sara Netanyahu had requested a meeting with the first lady.
The plan, however, hit a snag. Michelle Obama, the White House said, wouldn’t have time on the day of the meeting. She was already scheduled to travel to New York to inaugurate the newly renovated American wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and to be the guest of honor at the American Ballet Theatre's gala ball. The lack of a meeting between the two women was interpreted as a snub back home.
It was more than a year later – after the president and prime minister had met five times – that Sara Netanyahu got a White House sit-down with Michelle Obama. This time, things seemed more encouraging. Not only did they meet, but a glowing report of the meeting was relayed by Israeli officials: Obama commended Netanyahu for her work as a psychologist, praised her son Avner’s achievement in the national Bible quiz. The two women talked history, archaeology, and soccer (it was a World Cup year) and that Sara Netanyahu petted the president’s dog, Bo, when he wandered in the room.
According to the reports, Netanyahu told Obama that she looked forward to hosting the Obama family – especially their daughters, Malia and Sasha – when their family visited Jerusalem.
But such a visit was not to be. Unlike Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush before her, Michelle Obama stayed home when Barack Obama made his visit as president to Israel in 2013. The reason given was the first lady’s commitment to keep her daughters in class when school is in session and to forgo overseas trips herself during that time so Sasha and Malia weren’t left alone.
Instead, Sara Netanyahu presented the U.S. president with gifts for his family – harp medallions for his daughters and for his wife, a silver Passover plate to be used at the White House seder. (The plate was prominently on display at the seder.) She even offered a gift for the dog she had petted – a rubber hamburger.
Despite the gifts and friendly gestures the tea in 2010 would remain the single time that Sara Netanyahu formally sat down with Michelle Obama in eight years.
So it’s little wonder that Sara Netanyahu seems eager to get a fresh start with a new administration and spend some quality time in the White House with Melania Trump (she is no doubt also relieved at not having to negotiate new rules for spousal behavior when meeting with theoretical "First Gentleman" Bill Clinton).
In 2014, Sara Netanyahu took a page out of Michelle Obama’s playbook when she posted a photo on social media to launch a #BringBackOur Boys after the kidnapping of three yeshiva students, and took plenty of flack from the press, social media and bloggers for “impersonating” the first lady.
In addition to being the third wives of controversial public figures, being accused of imitating Michelle Obama is something that Sara Netanyahu and Melania Trump can bond over when they have their tea – an event that the former surely hopes will happen more than once, this time around.
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