JERUSALEM: The scene signaled a grave national emergency — dozens of riot police charged through the streets of Tel Aviv as crowds of anti-government protesters howled and roared. Their mission: to rescue Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s wife from a swanky salon where she was getting her hair done.
The protesters’ Wednesday night siege of the beauty parlor, accompanied by chants of “shame, shame,” cast a spotlight on Sara Netanyahu, a divisive figure long intertwined with her husband’s political career.
She has drawn scorn for a reputation of living a lavish lifestyle at the taxpayers’ expense — an image only reinforced by her decision to get her hair done in the center of a city wracked by unrest that turned violent Wednesday for the first time.
Israelis have also accused Netanyahu, a former air hostess turned educational psychologist, of wielding undue influence over her husband, pressuring him over political appointments and policy issues.
Here’s a look at what has made Sara Netanyahu so controversial over some three decades on the political stage.
Hey, big spender
Sara Netanyahu, 64, has garnered sensational headlines over the years for allegedly misappropriating public funds, overspending on household expenses and pocketing gifts from world leaders, among other things. In 2019, she accepted a plea bargain to settle accusations that she misused $100,000 in public funds to order lavish meals from celebrity chefs at the prime minister’s official residence, although she already had cooks on the government payroll. She also has become entangled in Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial, which has precipitated the country’s yearslong political crisis.
In exchange for political favors, the prime minister allegedly accepted gifts from billionaire friends that included tens of thousands of dollars in crates of champagne and extravagant jewelry for Sara Netanyahu, and struck backroom deals with newspaper publishers aimed at scoring more favorable coverage of his wife. He denies all wrongdoing. Most recently, a parliamentary committee approved new spending money for the Netanyahus, including an increase of thousands of dollars each year in clothing and makeup expenses for Sara Netanyahu.
“The general feeling is that this is a very greedy couple,” said Israeli journalist Amir Oren. “It does have a sort of Marie Antoinette vibe.”
Over the years, Sara Netanyahu’s household help has consistently accused her of explosive tirades and mistreatment. In one case, a leaked phone conversation surfaced of Netanyahu screaming at her publicist about how a gossip column omitted a mention of her educational credentials. In another, the family’s nanny said Netanyahu fired her for burning a pot of soup, kicking her onto the curb without her clothes or passport.
Two domestic workers have won damages in lawsuits accusing Netanyahu of making their lives miserable. In court testimony, one of them revealed Netanyahu’s taste for pink champagne and other expensive luxuries. Friends and staff over the years have shared accounts about Netanyahu’s extreme outbursts and unhealthy obsession with cleanliness. Netanyahu’s family has depicted themselves as the casualties of a press war. They brought a libel suit against Ehud Olmert, a former prime minister, after he described them as being “mentally ill.”
Callling the shots?
Critics of Netanyahu’s family have accused Sara Netanyahu of interference in the prime minister’s decision-making. Former officials have testified recently in court that she wielded undue influence over top security appointments. In January, a retired general testified that Sara Netanyahu interviewed him for 45 minutes for the job of the prime minister’s military secretary, after Benjamin Netanyahu had left the room. “For the last few years, there has been no appointment of a senior official that was not interviewed or influenced by Sara,” said Gayil Talshir, professor of political science at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
She has been accused of pushing her husband further to the right and helping drive his government’s determination to overhaul the country’s judiciary — a plan that has prompted some of the largest protests in Israeli history and drawn widespread condemnation from across Israeli society and around the world.
Given her past legal troubles, critics argue, she has just as much stake in the government’s plan to weaken the court system as her husband. Sara Netanyahu and her son, Yair — similarly a lightning rod for controversy — have repeatedly incited against Israel’s “elites” – the media, the bureaucrats, the civil servants. Benjamin Netanyahu insists that his wife keeps out of affairs of state.
Bad hair day
Because of Sara Netanyahu’s public profile, the opposition argues she’s not simply a first lady — but rather, a legitimate political target for the protest movement. Yair Golan, a former general and one-time Meretz party lawmaker, told Kan radio that “with all due respect, Sara Netanyahu is a political figure” and is involved in key appointments and decisions.
Yet the dramatic scenes of police forces, secret service and helicopters called to extract Netanyahu from her hair appointment changed the course of “the day of disruption.” Benjamin Netanyahu posted a photo on Twitter that showed him hugging his wife late at night, saying she returned home safe and warning that such “anarchy” would lead to the loss of life.
In a post on Instagram on Thursday, Sara Netanyahu thanked the police for helping her and thanked the public for what she said was an outpouring of support.
“Yesterday’s incident could have ended with murder,” she said. She called on opposition leaders to condemn “the violence, anarchy and incitement.”
The incident, which grabbed headlines even after police shocked the country by firing water cannons, stun grenades and tear gas at pro-democracy protesters, once again revealed Benjamin Netanyahu to be a master political manipulator, said Talshir. “He managed to play it well, projecting his wife as the real victim of yesterday’s protest,” she said. “But from the protesters’ point of view, Sara has been crucial in dividing the country and turning it toward autocracy.”