How important is Sara?
She is prominent in the realm of politics as theater, presented by the media as a public spectacle.
She is a frequent subject of the cartoonist for Ha'aretz, who depicts her like a creature that would remove the certificate of kashrut from Israel's hotels.
It's no great surprise that the editor-in-chief of Israel Hayom concerns himself with the choice of pictures that the newspaper publishes.
Several of Israel's "first wives" (of the prime ministers or presidents) have provided material for the media, but none with such a prominent negative tilt as Sara. There have been stories of Sara's "difficult" relationships with household help, including screaming and suits claiming her failure to abide by labor laws, along with Sara's charges of libel. Journalists who write about her must about coming up against the legal talent available to the family of the prime minister.
The most recent flap concerns a dress that she wore to the ceremonial swearing in of Knesset said to be way too revealing for a public figure. According to one article, "Sara Netanyahu is an advertisement for tires."
Only a puritan would call the dress risque, but this is Israel. Knesset Members of Torah Judaism and SHAS, and some of Jewish Home do not look directly at a woman who is not their wife, and refrain from any physical contact including shaking hands.
Among the problems that Naftali Benet is getting from politicians in the religious camp (some associated with the political party that he leads) is criticism that he hugs and kisses his wife and other women in public gatherings, that his kipa is not big enough, and that he is a false front for a party that claims to be religious.
Benet is also part of the Sara story. He fell outside the realm of individuals working with Bibi who were acceptable to Sara. On one occasion when she demanded his cooperation, he said that he worked for the prime minister and not for her. That may have been the issue that ended his tenure as Netanyahu's chief of staff, and caused the bad blood between him and both members of Israel's ruling family.
From a columnist in the Jerusalem Post:
"The energy that Mrs. (Sara) Netanyahu invests in her pathological hatred of (Benet) . . . could power the country's entire electricity grid."
Disturbing the household help and the prime minister's aides, and exciting the media, is about as close as Sara gets to issues of public importance. She trained as a psychologist, works in the field, and has been involved in matters concerned with Israel's less fortunate, but nothing close to issues of high policy. Americans looking for a comparison should not think of her as anything like Eleanor Roosevelt or Hillary Clinton. Maybe Lady Bird Johnson's concern with highway billboards. However, Sara has not been involved in a campaign as prominent as Lady Bird's concern with the beautification of public spaces.
Even Sara, and moreso other wives of Israeli politicians, have been minor figures in Israeli media compared to America's obsession with presidential wives. Most Israeli counterparts of presidential wives have gotten some attention, but nothing like the reporting about even the most shrinking from public view, like Pat Nixon or Bess Truman. No wife in Israel's history compares with Jackie Kennedy. Sara's recent dress comes as close as anything to Michelle Obama's inaugural dress, but that was as rare an event for Israeli fashion mavens as comments about Michelle's clothes are the standard stuff of American media.
Paula Ben Gurion is remembered for her sharp tongue, directed against her husband as well as others. At one state dinner she noticed that the Prime Minister had become engrossed in conversation with high ranking officials. She called out from her end of the table, "David, eat your chicken."
At the extreme of reticence was the late Sonia Peres. She refused to leave her Tel Aviv home when Shimon won his term in the presidential mansion. We heard that she was sick of public life, and upset that her husband had violated a commitment to retire.
Compare these stories to one about Sara Netanyahu that occurred at the site of an overseas conference during Netanyahu's first term.
"One day Netanyahu came back to his room late, because his talks with world leaders had lasted longer than planned. Sara . . . refused to open the door for him. The security guards tried to persuade her, but she, on the other side of the locked door, shouted that for her part he could stay outside all night. ... Only hours later did one of the security guards succeed in convincing Sara to allow the prime minister to enter his room."
In regard to how important is Sara for Israel's politics or public policy, the simple answer is, "not very."
No doubt that the coverage has been as negative as any given to a prominent Israeli wife, but there is nothing in the public record to associate her with the approval or veto of any major public venture, or to conclude that she has been an asset or detriment to her husband's career.
Posted by Ira Sharkansky at February 08, 2013 07:36 AM
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem