Yair Netanyahu: The rise of the son

How much influence does the prime minister’s controversial progeny have on Israel?

Yair Netanyahu makes a stormy appearance at Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court, December 2018.  (photo credit: AVSHALOM SHOSHANI)
Yair Netanyahu makes a stormy appearance at Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court, December 2018.
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SHOSHANI)
When IDF medic Elor Azaria shot in the head Abdel Fatah al-Sharif, a neutralized Palestinian who had stabbed an IDF soldier in Hebron, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, defense minister Moshe Ya’alon and IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot held emergency consultations to decide how to respond.
The three agreed to condemn Azaria, call the incident a violation of the IDF’s code of ethics and ensure a thorough military investigation.
That was on Thursday, March 24, 2016. Two days later, on Saturday night, Netanyahu told confidants he had changed his mind and was seriously considering expressing support for Azaria and calling his father, which the premier ultimately did a few days later.
What happened between Thursday and Saturday night? The prime minister simply went home for the weekend.
At home, Netanyahu’s confidants are not the defense minister and IDF chief of staff but his wife Sara and 29-year-old son Yair, who still lives with his parents at the Prime Minister’s Residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour and Smolenskin streets.
“On Saturday nights we always knew we had to be prepared to accept the worst from Bibi,” a former cabinet minister said. “That has been true more than ever since the emergence of Yair.”
Former Netanyahu advisers, Likud ministers and MKs said Sara Netanyahu has had a strong influence on the prime minister throughout his political career. But they said her influence is mostly over her husband’s hires and how he spends their money.
Unlike his mother, Yair Netanyahu’s influence is seen more in policy adopted by his father on issues like diplomacy, the media and the rule of law. His influence intensified in 2015, following his discharge from the IDF, the emergence of Twitter in Israel and the prime minister’s victory in an election in which incidents at home played a major role.
The prime minister, who turned 71 this week, has no smartphone and no familiarity with social media networks. His son tweets and shares posts on Facebook obsessively dozens of times a day and recently passed the milestone of 100,000 followers on Twitter.
At the height of the Elor Azaria incident, Netanyahu shocked his confidants by telling them that his reversal occurred after he had seen how the controversy was playing out on Facebook. Netanyahu’s exposure to social media comes from his son as well as two top advisers – Topaz Luk and Yonatan Urich – who served in the IDF Spokesman’s Unit at the same time as Yair, and whose hiring was said to have been advocated by him.
Yair Netanyahu in IDF uniform, with his proud parents. (Dudu Greenspan). Yair Netanyahu in IDF uniform, with his proud parents. (Dudu Greenspan).
THE ELOR Azaria incident is just one example of how the premier’s policies are influenced by the rise of his son. Sources who have worked for Netanyahu in the past as well as current and former figures in the Likud said he has impacted legislation, key appointments, political strategy and tactics when it comes to engagement with the media and the legal establishment.
These current and former officials blame the prime minister’s apparent abandonment of the once holy policy of bipartisanship in American politics on Yair, who has become a regular right-wing social media pundit on US politics and held high-profile meetings with Republican campaign officials on a visit to Washington two years ago.
Yair’s Twitter page features the quote wrongly attributed to US president Theodore Roosevelt, “If you want to upset a conservative tell him a lie. If you want to upset a liberal tell him the truth.”
He regularly praises President Donald Trump on Facebook and Twitter with hyperbole, depicting him as Israel’s savior, while repeating discredited theories about president Barack Obama not being born in America.
His September 14, 2019 tweet was: “Wow! History!!! Trump spoke to the PM and agreed to advance a defense pact between Israel and the US!!! This will guarantee that Israel will never be destroyed!”
That defense pact never materialized.
The morning after Trump announced his nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the US Supreme Court, Yair tweeted about her and what her appointment means for the Israeli legal system a dozen times.
Yair’s hard line against the legal establishment has been increasingly adopted by his father, as if he was following his son’s lead after he tested the waters for him with trial balloons. Likud figures said it was no coincidence that the prime minister started to regularly and publicly attack the legal establishment since Yair’s influence increased.
HIS SOCIAL media presence hasn’t come without consequence. At the end of September, a complaint was filed against Yair for incitement to murder Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit and obstruction of justice, in response to a tweet in which Yair wrote that the attorney-general posed an existential threat to Israel and was trying to “destroy it from within.”
And while Yair is not a defendant in any of his father’s cases, his name did come up in Case 1000 – the Expensive Gifts Affair – when police cited problems with Australian billionaire James Packer letting Yair use his Tel Aviv apartment.
Yair was also interrogated as a possible suspect in Case 4000 – the Bezeq-Walla Affair – for sending texts to Walla with positive items about his family to post on the news site. The case was closed for both Yair and Sara, due to insufficient evidence.
Moreover, the prime minister’s son has made the news over his use of vulgar language and alleged misuse of public funds. The most notorious case was in January 2018 when he took a taxpayer-funded car and driver with friends to a Tel Aviv strip club and made lewd comments about an ex-girlfriend on the way that were later leaked to the press.
Yair also had to apologize recently for suggesting on social media that a top journalist had gotten her post by sleeping her way to the top. But he did not apologize for expressing hope that elderly activists protesting against his father would die of coronavirus or for comparing police investigating his father to the Mafia, Stasi and Gestapo.
When Facebook removed his posts targeting Muslims and Palestinians due to its policy against hate speech in December 2018, Yair reposted a screenshot of the posts, which led the social media giant to suspend his account and Yair to call on Twitter for an international campaign against Facebook.
The previous year, a meme he posted on Facebook targeting left-wing Jewish philanthropist George Soros was praised by notorious white supremacist and former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke, who tweeted, “Welcome to the club, Yair – absolutely amazing, wow, just wow.”
In interviews with former top aides to the prime minister, they did not hold back their personal repugnance at his behavior.     
“[Yair] has always considered himself above the law,” said a one-time aide. “He is obsessed with media coverage and social media. His behavior is as problematic as his mom’s. Her focus is on money and staying in power. He is driven by ideology.”
The aide said the pattern is usually that Yair pressures his mother, and she in turn pressures his father. The aide said that Yair can also go weeks without waking up before midday.
"It's the protestors on Balfour Street who think they are above the law." Police arrest demonstrators outside teh PM's residence in Jerusalem on October 17, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi / Flash90)"It's the protestors on Balfour Street who think they are above the law." Police arrest demonstrators outside teh PM's residence in Jerusalem on October 17, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi / Flash90)
THAT IS just one of the reasons why despite being bright and well-connected, Yair has barely been employed. In 2018, he was hired as social media coordinator for the legal rights organization Shurat Hadin. Part of his job was to help prepare the organization for lawsuits against Google and Facebook.
But he couldn’t keep that job and was put on leave in March 2019 after mocking President Reuven Rivlin’s Jewish-Arab coexistence efforts on Twitter, though he said at the time that he left to help his father’s re-election campaign.
In the IDF, Yair served in the Spokesman’s Unit’s prestigious international press department, where he infamously got punished for leaving without permission.
“It’s one thing to use connections to get into an IDF unit, which other kids of top politicians and senior IDF officers have done,” a former Netanyahu aide said. “But those kids have tried to do well once they got there. He acted above the rules, invoked his father’s name and came and went as he pleased.”
The former Likud official said he behaved similarly when working in the party’s campaign. While other team members wore formal attire, he would show up to crucial meetings in sweatpants and a T-shirt.
“He raised his voice a lot and put everyone on edge. When Yair wants something, it has to happen,” a former Likud official said.
A former Netanyahu aide said this occurs with policy decisions as well. He maintained it was Yair who pushed his father to pass a new law limiting the volume of mosque loudspeakers, even though a law already existed that police were not enforcing for their own reasons.
“Bibi said we must pass a new law and it was clearly just to appease the kid, even though there was no logic,” the former aide said.
Other one-time aides told similar stories about Yair’s influence on adding cameras to monitor Arab violence in Jerusalem’s Old City and on a high-profile fight over the prime minister speaking at the 2018 Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration, where the top address is traditionally given by the Knesset speaker.
Netanyahu’s top advisers reached an agreement with the director-general of the Knesset. But after the prime minister went home for the weekend, he changed his mind and his top advisers had to go back on their word and violate the deal.
Another way Yair has clout is in his closeness with cabinet secretary Tzachi Braverman, a former Likud activist who has been a family friend for many years. When heavier hitters were in that sensitive post, Yair did not have access to them.
One hire in the Prime Minister’s Office said to be heavily impacted by Yair was that of right-wing pundit Ron Baratz as the prime minister’s media adviser in 2016. The appointment was held up for months after it became known that Baratz had accused then-president Obama of antisemitism, mocked then-secretary of state John Kerry’s aptitude and wrote denigrating Facebook posts about Rivlin. Baratz lasted just seven months on the job.
Yair reportedly also encouraged the hiring of right-wing American journalist Aaron Klein, another fierce Obama critic who wrote for Breitbart, led the Likud’s strategic team in its successful election last March and is currently in charge of strategy for Netanyahu and the Likud.
The prime minister’s new adviser on small businesses, a central role during the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus, is Tzofia Nahon, a friend of Yair. He also backed the hiring of Netanyahu’s adviser on animal rights, Tal Gilboa, whose unique role never existed before.
Likud ministers and MKs have learned it could help their careers to become friendly with Yair, just like it does with Sara. Sources in the party said his friendship with Yair helped move Likud MK Amir Ohana from the backbenches of the Knesset to justice minister and now internal security minister, at the expense of more senior Likud figures. Coalition chairman Miki Zohar is regularly in touch with him as well, the sources said.
ONLY RECENTLY has Yair had to face legal consequences for his attacks on his father’s critics.
In August, the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court slapped Yair with a restraining order that prohibits him from tweeting or publishing commentary about leaders of the protest movements against his father for the next six months. In addition, it ordered him to delete tweets he had posted online against the leaders of the “Crime Minister” movement.
In September, a group of 75 graduates of the Wexner Israel Fellowship at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government filed a NIS 1 million defamation lawsuit against him for calling the approximately 500 Wexner graduates a “cult of pedophiles” on Twitter and demanding legislation that would ban any of the graduates from serving in Israel’s public sector.
With the addition of that case, Yair is now facing six separate defamation and libel lawsuits totaling NIS 3.14 million. But that has not made him tone down his writing on social media.  
A former Likud official said any challenge Yair is facing now was brought on by himself.
“Yair could have chosen to be [private like] Tiffany Trump, but he chose to be [public like] Donald Trump Jr.,” the former official said. “Being a media personality is his choice.”
NEVERTHELESS, A veteran family friend of the Netanyahus who has been in contact with them for 20 years, said the criticism of Yair is unfair.
“Technically speaking, he is a private person,” the friend said. “He has not been voted into office. No one voted for him to be the prime minister’s son. That is his fate, but legally, he is a private person.”
Regarding his use of social media that has gotten him in trouble, the friend noted that he is the first prime minister’s son to be raised in a world of Twitter and that the children of former prime ministers Ehud Olmert and Menachem Begin were not raised in the limelight like Yair.
“It’s not all what you read and see,” the friend insisted. “He is a very intelligent boy, and you can’t deny that the press and the people have not always given him a fair shake. People have a preconceived notion from what they see in the press. They think he is a spoiled little rich boy as he is portrayed on the [satirical sketch comedy] show Eretz Nehederet. He can be down-to-earth. He is a nice person who deeply cares about his parents and tries to protect them.”
The family friend said Yair has had media eyes on him since kindergarten, adding that there were security guards at his kindergarten every day and recalling that the media tried to infiltrate his bar mitzvah at the Decks Restaurant on the Sea of Galilee in Tiberias 16 years ago.
“His actions are a defense mechanism for protecting his parents,” the friend said. “How do you grow up with there being no one you can trust, even the people meant to be driving and protecting them?”
The friend noted that Yair was very close to his mother’s parents before they died and that he would bring them books and study with them and learn from their modesty. Asked what he wanted to do with his life, she said he is in the process of building his career and suggested he would like to build an alternative media base – like Fox did to CNN. Asked why Yair cannot be more like his siblings who rarely make headlines, she said, “They’re all nice kids. Avner is more shy. Yair is more outgoing.”
When asked if Yair believes he is above the law, she replied, “It is the protesters on Balfour Street who think they are above the law,” and that unlike Yair, “they never apologize.”
A friend from the army said: “Yair is extremely cosmopolitan and well-read in Jewish history, Tanach and geography. He was extremely warm and friendly to many of the new immigrants in our unit and on hand to help translate and explain when needed.”
Asked about perceptions from his officers that he was disrespectful in the IDF, his army friend recounted, “A little power is a dangerous thing. I watched how some superiors enjoyed tormenting the prime minister’s son, it was good for their ego.”
Yair himself, the Prime Minister’s Office and a spokesman for the Netanyahu family declined to speak on record about the complaints leveled against Yair, who tweeted last week that he is starting his own podcast called “The Yair Netanyahu Show.” But another source close to the family downplayed the lawsuits, saying that some were just filed to make headlines off the name of the prime minister’s son.
“Attempts of extremists to use lawsuits to silence Yair Netanyahu will not prevent him from telling his truth,” the source said.
The source maintained it was an exaggeration to say that Yair influences government policies. He said decisions were made by the prime minister and relevant advisers, and if when they come Yair is the room, he always leaves.
“He is of course close to the prime minister and knowledgeable and opinionated on a lot of subjects,” the source said. “It is right to say he is an informal adviser, but his weight is limited. He helps the prime minister sharpen his knowledge of key issues. But that is far from influencing the state. Like many others, his view is heard.”
The source described Yair as fighting the strong with strength but caring about helping the weak, like Holocaust survivors and animal rights groups. He said Yair follows up under the radar to make sure they are helped, without the press knowing.
“Attacking him is the easiest thing in the world,” the source said. “He sees himself as the last line of defense of his parents, and he decided to go to battle. He took the role upon himself. I don’t think it’s an obsession if you’ve lived a life of seeing attacks on your family. It is the press that has an obsession with the prime minister and uses his family as a tool to harm him. What his critics say does not fit the Yair I know.”
In the rare interviews Yair has given, he has also said that he is a private individual, not a public figure. But his critics beg to differ, because of his influence on his father and evidence presented to Yair in the past that his behavior has harmed the prime minister in the polls.
“He brought everything he is facing upon himself, like celebrities who make mistakes on Twitter,” a former senior aide to Netanyahu said. “The people who work for Netanyahu now see how the influence that Balfour has on him is greater than ever, and privately they admit that it is taking its toll on the prime minister – and it is a very serious problem.”