Newsmaker: Sara Netanyahu

In Israel, huge swathes of the population think Sara Netanyahu, wife of prime minister ­Benjamin Netanyahu, is evil incarnate, and this week she’s once again been the subject of close scrutiny over her use of the public purse. Sara Netanyahu has for years been alienating her fellow Israelis and, while she has managed to cloak […]

In Israel, huge swathes of the population think Sara Netanyahu, wife of prime minister ­Benjamin Netanyahu, is evil incarnate, and this week she’s once again been the subject of close scrutiny over her use of the public purse.

Sara Netanyahu has for years been alienating her fellow Israelis and, while she has managed to cloak much of her personal life in closely guarded secrecy, almost everyone has an immovable opinion on her. These range from her being maligned and misunderstood, to being a controlling, manipulative Lady Macbeth-type witch who has nobody’s interests at heart other than her own. Nobody, perhaps apart from her husband and a few disgruntled former employees, seems to really know what she’s like.

What we do know is that she has had rather a bad week. On May 29, a police investigation was wrapped up, resulting in the announcement of a recommendation that she be prosecuted for fraud. And on May 31 she lost a court case brought by one of those disgruntled former employees, in which she was found guilty of “abusive” and “humiliating” treatment.

The former staff member, maintenance worker Guy Eliyahu, had been employed at the Netanyahus’s official residence, and the judge, Justice Dita Pruginin, accepted his account of the treatment he was subjected to by Netanyahu, ruling that he was “exposed to abusive treatment at the residence, which was reflected in reprimands, yelling, humiliation, excessive and unreasonable demands”. She even blamed him for her weight gain, accusing him of providing the wrong food.

Eliyahu was not the first ex- staffer to complain of harsh and unreasonable treatment at Netanyahu’s hands, so it’s quite familiar territory. But it’s the fraud case that has everyone talking. Last December, she was questioned by officials within Lahav 433 (Israel’s police financial fraud unit) over allegations that she was misappropriating government funds for personal use, such as paying for private catering at the family residence in Caesarea and having work carried out on the property, all funded by public money.

On his Facebook page, however, her husband came to her defence, saying: “The various allegations that have been aired by the media outlets will prove to be untrue, just as has happened with all the allegations that have been directed against the Netanyahu family for years.”

Whatever the truth is, officials appear determined to uncover it and the strain was beginning to show on the prime minister’s face this week. This is, after all, a man who a significant number of Israelis believe to be under the direct control of his wife.

What do we know about this controversial figure? What has made her the woman she is? The basics can be discovered by checking out her curriculum vitae on the Prime Minister’s Office website, which mentions that she was born in November 1958 in the northern Israeli town of Tivon, near Haifa. She is the daughter of the late Chava and Shmuel Ben-Artzi, who was a poet, writer and teacher, and she is one of four siblings, all of whom have enjoyed a great deal of personal success. What you might not expect to read, however, is that Sara Netanyahu is “an expert child psychologist at the Jerusalem Municipality Psychological Service”.

Completing high school in 1977, she was reportedly an ambitious teenager and began working as a correspondent for Ma’ariv LaNoar, a weekly, teen-focused magazine. The same year in which she left school, she entered military service, working as a “psycho­technical diagnostician” in the Israel Defense Force (IDF) Intelligence Unit for two years. Once the draft was over, she returned to her studies, completing a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1984 and a master’s degree the following year.

It was after completing that master’s degree, while writing her thesis, that she worked as a flight attendant for the El Al airline, which is how she eventually met Benjamin Netanyahu. They wed in 1991, but before that she was married to Doron Neuberger, divorcing after seven years together in 1987.

In October 1996, it emerged that Neuberger had plans to publish a “tell-all” book about their marriage. According to Israel’s Channel Two Television, this was instigated by his outrage at seeing a photograph of his ex-wife, in which she appeared to be looking at official, classified documents that impacted “national security”. Benjamin Netanyahu’s lawyer claimed she was reviewing a personal itinerary, nothing to do with state secrets.

The detail the book was to go into was said to be embarrassing, but it never saw light of day. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported in 1996: “Neuberger said that when the Netanyahus found out about his plans, he was offered money to destroy the draft. The Netanyahus’s version is that Neuberger demanded US$1 million [Dh3.67m] to shut up.” One of Mrs Netanyahu’s tactics was to send a 93-page letter to Neuberger’s parents – there really was no way she was going to let those secrets out and, whether or not money changed hands, to this day they remained untold.

Sara is Benjamin Netanyahu’s third wife, and it was in 1993, only two years after their marriage, that what is alleged to have been a massive power shift occurred between the couple. She took an anonymous phone call, during which the caller threatened that if he didn’t withdraw from a leadership bid, a tape would be “leaked”, proving that he had cheated on her with another woman.

Learning of this development, the prime minister headed to Israel’s Channel 1 television studios and, in a panicked broadcast, admitted his infidelity. What would his wife do in the face of such public humiliation? Allegedly she got him to sign a legal, attested document that regulates the power between them. Writing for the Haaretz newspaper in 2013, Asher Schechter said it’s a widely held belief that this document gives Netanyahu “overwhelming influence over her husband’s career”.

Schechter went on to say that “Sara Netanyahu’s love-hate-hate-hate-hate-hate relationship with the Israeli public truly began when her husband was first elected prime minister in 1996. She quickly became a political liability for him, derided in the press as a controlling, obsessive wife.” Perhaps that ambitious streak she was showing while in high school had properly come home to roost.

There is no shortage of anecdotes when it comes to Sara Netanyahu but one that Schechter shared was noteworthy, especially in light of the alleged power shift with her husband.

“Then there’s the feature about the Netanyahus in July’s Vanity Fair [2013],” he wrote. “In it, contributing editor David Margolick describes a peculiar scene he witnessed in November 2011: Sara’s father, Shmuel Ben-Artzi, had just died, and ministers, tycoons and other national leaders flocked to the ‘shiva’, or Jewish mourning ritual.

“According to Margolick, they were not there for the prime minister – they had come to see Sara, not so much out of love or respect. ‘I have no choice,’ he quoted an Israeli tycoon as saying. ‘She’s running the show in Israel. She can make or break anyone.'”

In the 1999 elections, Benjamin Netanyahu was defeated by Ehud Barak and he temporarily retired from politics, disappearing from the public eye. But its gaze never shifted from his wife, who seemed to be getting more controversial with every passing week. The allegations of financial corruption began to surface during this period, with the couple reportedly having received services for their home from a contractor, which were later put on a state expense account.

“Also,” noted Schechter in 2013, “the police claimed the couple illegally removed gifts worth hundreds of thousands of shekels that they had received during Netanyahu’s premiership from the prime minister’s residence. They were never charged, but former attorney general Elyakim Rubinstein was highly critical of their behaviour.”

The court cases, the stories, the accusations – they’ve all just multiplied in recent times. While her husband has been busying himself with violating Article 47 of the fourth Geneva Convention, his wife’s antics have been a ­gossip-fuelled distraction

Little wonder, then, that she is routinely described as Israel’s most hated woman and has a reputation as the country’s own Imelda Marcos. Naturally, the official line is that these innumerable accusations over the years have been vicious lies conjured up by their enemies. But there’s a saying that where there’s smoke there’s fire, and the alarms have not stopped sounding for more than 15 years. It’s unlikely they ever will.

weekend@thenational.ae

Source: art & life

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