It is 3:59 p.m. on February 18, about an hour after my scheduled interview with Sara Netanyahu was supposed to begin. I call my husband: “I’m seriously considering leaving.” He advises patience.
I am sitting in the office that once belonged to former house manager Meni Naftali, who is suing the Netanyahus for NIS 1 million – claiming he was insulted, treated unfairly, yada yada yada.
There are piles of plastic bags stuffed with unidentifiable material, a randomly placed iron, an unhappy plant, a round top to something or other, and a half-eaten bar of Elite chocolate. I’m thinking: If this is the way Naftali left it, the Netanyahus should be suing him.
At 4 p.m. the state comptroller’s report is due to be released, concerning the Netanyahus’ use of public funds in maintaining the Prime Minister’s Residence.
“Can I turn on the television?” I ask someone. There it is, taking over the airwaves: State Comptroller Joseph Shapira’s considered judgment that “household expenditures did not meet a single criterion of the basic principles of proportionality, reasonableness, economy and efficiency,” and that “spending by the Prime Minister’s Residence on catered and takeaway meals, as well as on cleaning, [was] excessive.”
A half-hour later, I am finally ushered into the office of the prime minister’s wife. On the way, I pass through the premier’s official residence, which is at the heart of the comptroller’s report. I look hard for gold-leaf ceilings and imported antiques, but all I see is a charming house in a state of genteel decline. The door handles are scratched. The kitchen is covered in blue formica – all the rage when I first came to Israel as a new immigrant in 1971. The furniture is simple, pleasant and forgettable.
I can’t help comparing it a few hours later to my neighbor’s home, during a home-owners meeting in my Katamon apartment building. My neighbor’s furnishings are nicer, certainly newer.
To tell you the truth, it’s pretty embarrassing to think that world leaders are brought here. I’d say it is way overdue for a major renovation – of the kind the President’s Residence recently completed under Shimon Peres, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. But I guess now the Netanyahus won’t be able to do anything.
Sara Netanyahu’s office is homey, decorated with her favorite family photos as well as those of her and her husband with visiting dignitaries, such as US president George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, First Lady Michelle Obama, and even Madonna. There is one photo of Sara and her husband that especially caught my eye: She is leaning into him, her eyes closed as he wraps his arm around her. I’ve got a similar one with my own husband of 45 years; it’s a photo of two people who couldn’t be closer.
Despite the bad news, Sara Netanyahu comes in with a smile looking polished and chic, in a simple, flattering outfit of black pants and a black top and sweater.
She looks full of energy, even after what must have been a disappointing and trying day of bad news and more personal attacks. She apologizes for the delay.
“WOULD YOU like to say something about the comptroller’s report?” I ask her right off the bat, wanting to usher the elephant out of the room.
“The timing is surprising,” says Sara. “A few weeks before the election, and there is no sense of proportion. There was supposed to be a line-by-line comparison of costs between the running of the prime minister’s official residence, with the cost of running similar public institutions like the President’s Residence.
Without that, how is the average person supposed to judge what’s going on?” My thoughts exactly.
“Let’s talk about something a bit more pleasant,” I say quickly, happy to put this unfruitful topic aside. “Let’s start with your childhood. I’ve read many articles about you, but I’ve never once heard you describe your upbringing.”
“That’s because no one ever asks me, and no one is interested,” she replies, giving me my first glimpse into her fraught relationship with the Israeli press, which has hounded her for years – creating a narrative in which she is usually pictured as a cross between the Wicked Witch of the West, Marie Antoinette and Imelda Marcos. “She is the most hated woman in Israel,” someone wrote me recently in a talkback to one of my articles.
And here I am sitting next to the object of widespread derision as she graciously pulls up a chair beside me, instead of barricading herself behind her desk, answering my questions as we pore over baby pictures together (she was an adorable blonde cherub with three older brothers, her family’s pride and joy).
“We had a very close family. I wouldn’t say our parents spoiled us – there was very little money in those days for that – but they spent time with us, and education was very important to them. It was a warm and nurturing household.”
“How did your parents meet?” “At a conference in Jerusalem. My father [Shmuel Ben-Artzi] was an educator, a scholar and poet who came to Israel as the emissary of his yeshiva in Poland to open a branch in Bnei Brak. [He also fought with the Irgun and Hagana.] My mother, Chava, was a seventh-generation Jerusalemite, a highly educated woman who was a primary-school teacher. My father told us she was so young and beautiful, he never expected she’d agree to marry him. It took her a long time to say yes, but he persisted.
“I remember our home being a meeting spot for neighbors and friends, who came to consult my mother about their problems and to get her advice. I think that’s where my desire to become a psychologist began.”
During her army service, she was a psycho-technical diagnostician in the IDF’s Intelligence Corps, and went on to earn a BA in psychology from Tel Aviv University as well as a master’s in psychology with honors from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
She is, hands down, the most educated prime minister’s wife in Israeli history, as well as the only one with her own career. Several times a week she heads to a suburb of the capital, where she is in charge of psychological counseling for students and their parents at two schools. She shares a tiny office with other members of staff.
“When I go to work, I wipe my head clean of everything else I’m involved in,” she relates. “I’m there 100 percent; I love my work.”
I don’t have to ask why it is we’ve heard almost nothing about this part of Sara’s life. Working with children and their families to give them better lives, and a better educational experience, simply doesn’t fit into the account of the spoiled, frivolous, extravagant woman the press has taught us to hate.
She shakes her head, disagreeing with the notion that the world is against her.
“I wouldn’t say that. There’s the media, and then there are the people. People really appreciate what I do. When I went to the hospital to visit wounded soldiers during the war [2014’s Operation Protective Edge], or to visit bereaved families, the people I met always told me the same thing: ‘Don’t pay attention to the press; we love you.’” In September, she went to visit lone soldiers who’d taken part in last summer’s war. “I thought: Rosh Hashana is coming. Whatever the government decides to do for them, I’m not going to let my soldiers, who fought in this war, go without. It really bothered me. In about two days, I was able to raise about NIS 400,000 to make sure they and other needy soldiers got what they needed for the holiday.”
As she tells me about some of her other volunteer work, one thing that becomes absolutely clear: Sara Netanyahu loves children, especially those in need.
Over the past few years, she has “adopted” a young cancer victim – visiting her, inviting her over and sending her birthday gifts.
Similarly, she is close to the children of the Fogel family, whose parents and siblings were brutally murdered by terrorists in Itamar in 2011. “To this day, I’m in touch with their saba and savta [grandparents],” and with Rachel Attias, the little girl who was the sole survivor of the horrific car crash that killed her entire family in 2013. “I went to visit her, and invited her here.”
She does it all quietly, without great fanfare, and without any press coverage at all – because the media isn’t interested in this Sara Netanyahu.
AS I listen to her, I just can’t help myself.
I have to know: Where did it start, this devastating public image of her as a haughty, wasteful spendthrift, who abuses household help, is extravagant with public money and parsimonious with her own, lavishly feathering her nest at the taxpayer’s expense while collecting bottles and pocketing the return deposit? What’s really behind all of these outrageous and petty stories, which no matter how many times they are debunked, keep coming back in different forms? She answers me without hesitation: “There is one man behind it: Noni [Arnon] Mozes.”
Mozes, whom some call the most powerful man in Israel, is also the publisher of the daily newspaper Yediot Aharonot.
His track record shows a left-leaning agenda, supporting the Oslo Accords, 2005’s Gaza Disengagement and the Labor Party. Mozes was also a vocal supporter (and, some say, used his connections in the government) to further the controversial Israel Hayom bill, legislation that would make it illegal for newspapers with a certain circulation to be distributed free. Israel Hayom, which was founded by American billionaire Sheldon Adelson, is seen as right-wing and supportive of the prime minister and his Likud party.
In a Facebook post, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Mozes of being “the key factor behind the wave of smears against me and my wife.”
His wife continues, “Everyone who works for me knows that the media are waiting for them – to give them honor, and maybe money, to say something negative about me. Any person who has bad things to say about me is suddenly very popular with the media.”
Going to court is very expensive; who is financing all the legal disputes of your maids and janitors? I inquire.
“That’s a question I wish the public would ask. I’ve sued for libel – and I’ve won every single time.”
I look up again at that picture of her and her husband, embracing. Adversity like this can destroy a marriage, or turn the bonds to steel. “Everyone agrees that you and your husband are extremely close. Some suggest that you even influence his decisions. Is this true?” “I don’t go to government meetings.
Honestly, there are wives – even husbands – of MKs who are far more involved than I am with their spouse’s work.”
Tzipi Livni’s husband, a PR expert, allegedly runs her campaigns.
“It’s this elitist, chauvinistic attitude that blames the woman, says everything must be the woman’s fault. It’s a very sexist attitude – a deliberate attempt to degrade the wife of the prime minister in her natural role as his partner and helpmate,” she continues.
“What is true is that the head of the government is also a human being who needs someone to discuss things with; it’s a natural thing for any person to discuss things with his wife. He won’t seek my advice on government, security or economic matters, about which I understand nothing. But I am, after all, a psychologist, and my loyalty to him is beyond question. Are his advisers any smarter than I am when it comes to things that affect my husband’s well-being? So, of course, it’s natural that he discusses things with me.
“That’s why I like to be with him on his trips. He calls me sometimes and says, ‘It’s a shame you’re not with me.’ At the end of the day, it’s hard to be alone, to come back to an empty hotel room with no one to talk things over with. If I’m there, I can also take care of him, make sure his suits and shirts are sent to the dry cleaners, pick out his ties...”
Any plans in the works for celebrating your silver wedding anniversary? I ask.
It’s coming up next year.
She shakes her head. “There’s no time.” And then, hesitantly, she tell me about a trip she once took to Rome with a friend. “I happened to visit the synagogue there. There’s a custom unique to the Jews of Rome – they put couples celebrating their silver or golden wedding anniversary under a huppa again in the synagogue. I thought: How moving!” Would you like to do that? “Maybe for my 50th,” she smiles.
Right now, there is no time for even a date night. Do you ever go to a movie together? She hesitates. “Once a year; maybe twice.”
That’s so hard for me to imagine.
“Can you at least put on a DVD and sit back on the couch and eat popcorn and watch it with your husband?” She shakes her head. “Sometimes, though, when I’m alone I watch; or with my sons [Yair and Avner].”
How does she manage all these pressures? The obligations of the prime minister’s wife, her volunteer work, her responsibilities as a school psychologist, being a wife and mother – not to mention all the lawsuits, the negative press, constantly being put on the defensive.
“No. 1, I’m an extremely strong person, psychologically and emotionally.
A normal, average person would have been crushed long ago. It helps that I’m aware of the motivation behind these attacks. I’ve been in their sights ever since 1996 [when Netanyahu was first elected prime minister]: We were a young couple from the wrong side of the political tracks – not bad-looking, educated, with sweet, young children.”
She knocks twice against the Evil Eye and says “Baruch Hashem [Thank God],” before continuing, “We were too young and too successful at that time. As a journalist once told me, ‘If you had come from the Left politically, you, exactly as you are, would have been our queen.’” There is another pressure we haven’t broached yet, which I suspect must outweigh all the others. “How is it to have a son in the army? Avner, right?” “Very emotional.”
“I read that he insisted on going into a combat unit, rather than take the media job he was offered. How was that for you?” She takes a deep breath, then exhales.
“Like any other mother in Israel.”
She’s silent for a moment, and I sense for the first time in this interview that there is a limit to even the remarkable fortitude of this strong, active woman – and we have just reached it.
“Someone recently told me that on Iranian websites, they have pictures of my boys with target signs on them.
I don’t make an issue out of it, but people don’t seem to realize that today my sons – in or out of the army – are now a target.”
I FINALLY realize the truth: The daily scandals of disgruntled, publicity-seeking employees, the accusations of petty crimes like the pilfering of bottle deposits, and even the state comptroller’s report, are nothing compared to that. “So that is what’s really weighing on your heart?” “Exactly,” she affirms. “Next to that, everything else [they throw at me] is so low, so pathetic, so despicable.”
She goes back to Meni Naftali, like a wound you can’t help touching. “It’s the idea that some people earn their livelihood by throwing dirt on other people, their reputations – and not just anyone, but someone who you worked for, who was by your side. Someone to whom you entrusted an important job, provided with a good salary, a car, a position of importance, who then turns around and betrays your trust.
“If you’re unhappy at work, why not just leave? Why do you have to spit into the well you drank from? What kind of person does something like that?” I can’t help thinking of the BBC drama Downton Abbey, with its upstairs/ downstairs intrigue, scheming staff and the bubbling cauldron of endless gossip.
Here, of course, the normal problems of keeping people happy at their jobs is compounded by the lure of fame and fortune to those who defect and come up with the few juicy, delectable quotes the media hungers for, to pad their “evil Sara” narrative.
“Whether you are prime minister or an average person, everyone needs his privacy, a place where you can throw your socks into the laundry, go to the bathroom or ask for a cup of coffee without being judged,” asserts Sara.
Is there a solution? She shrugs. “Keep going, and live with the fear. You’re afraid to talk here, afraid to say anything there, afraid of what will be and what won’t be. Who’s listening? How are they going to twist what you say? When will you suddenly see them on television and hear them on the radio?” I have one last question for Mrs. Netanyahu: How is it to be the wife, the friend, the confidante of a world-renowned leader who is making history? A man whom many in the Jewish world consider a hero for facing the hard questions, and the enemies of our country and the Jewish people? “It’s to feel yourself part of the whole process, intimately involved in everything he hopes to achieve. He’s a hero not only of the Jewish people, but of people everywhere who feel themselves part of the free world, people who oppose the horrors that Islamic State is inflicting and Iran’s nuclear plans. I see my relationship with him as a great responsibility.
The more he takes on himself, the more he needs someone by his side. That’s me, that’s our children. I think he knows that in the end he has his family, that we will always be there for him.
“I believe he is a man who will go down in history as a great leader, but in the here and now, the media in Israel are so hostile towards him. It hurts me; he is so admired in the rest of the world. Our media try to present him as a solitary figure in world politics. This is not true; wherever he goes in the world, other world leaders seek out his company and his opinions. He’s highly respected.”
What advice do you have for the next woman who might find herself the wife of Israel’s prime minister, I ask.
She’s silent for a moment.
“I don’t know what to tell you. There’s a place for the [prime minister’s wife], and then there’s the place given to Sara Netanyahu.
“I don’t believe that they’ll ever again do to anyone else what they’ve done to me.” ■