|Sara Netanyahu: Photoshopped picture on Twitter|
Everywhere in Israel people are whispering the latest news about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s wife, Sara Netanyahu: “Have you heard that Sara kept four thousand shekels (roughly $1000) from deposits on empty bottles that were returned to supermarkets even though the bottle deposits were state property?” “Did you hear that she insisted on buying small mineral water bottles rather than large ones in order to increase the deposits?” “Have you heard that she drinks excessively and then abuses employees?”
The scandal is front page news of all major newspapers. Meretz leader, Zehava Gal-on called on Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein to launch an investigation into whether Sara Netanyahu kept the deposit money. “[Benjamin] Netanyahu’s silence and his refusal to properly address claims over illegal use of funds are dragging Sara Netanyahu into the center of the public debate,” she said in a statement. “He is hiding behind her instead of taking responsibility for his actions as prime minister.” If the allegations are found to be true, Gal-on continued, Netanyahu should withdraw his candidacy for prime minister.
Netanyahu responded that this is a personal campaign against him through his wife. Instead of arguing the issues, the Left attacks his wife. No doubt there is some truth to this. It is easy to smear Sara Netanyahu and hope the smell will stick to her husband. And the public loves good gossip. But something else is going on here.
The majority of the population in Israel is living in great economic difficulties. Most Israelis can no longer afford to buy a home. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, the monthly cost of living for 45% of Israelis over the age of 20 is higher than their wages. If you’ve visited Israel lately, you know that everything is more expensive there, and on average people make less.
Yet while Israelis are struggling, the Netanyahus spent at least NIS 100,000 ($25,450) on alcohol over a two year period. Over the course of three months at the end of 2010, they spent NIS 50,000 on alcoholic drinks. As Zionist Camp co-chair Tzipi Livni indicates, Netanyahu’s monthly alcohol budget amounts to the month’s salary of a million Israelis.
Personally, I am not surprised at how disconnected Sara Netanyahu is. In late 1998, university students all over Israel went on strike demanding to reduce tuition costs. I was a student at Tel Aviv University at the time and an active participant in the demonstrations. Some activists began a hunger strike in front of the Prime Minister’s house in Jerusalem. One day Sara Netanyahu taunted them with trays of pizza rather than addressing their difficulty in paying high tuition.
There are several historical examples of a smear campaigns against a leader’s wife. The obvious one is Queen Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI’s wife who is rumored to have said “Let them eat cake” (or, in fact, brioche). Cartoonists and pamphleteers lambasted her as an adulteress, a lesbian, a pedophile, and a traitor. One pamphlet stated: “Since the Revolution, the monarchist club, whose body and soul is Antoinette, have been continually at it; all its members have drawn from the vagina of the Austrian Woman…That infectious cavern is the receptacle of all vices, where each comes and takes his required dose.” Tsarina Aleksandra, the wife of Nicholas II, was also pilloried in the underground press for allegedly having an affair with the notorious monk, Grigori Rasputin, and everyone else, while her husband was away at the front during World War I. One poem read:
In the Tsar’s bedroom our dark little flower
Has opened up her petals of pleasure.
In the Tsar’s tower our little Alexandra
Has been plucked by all the Guards.
The point in all this vitriol was to emasculate the leader.
Sara Netanyahu has much in common with these historical examples. Here too, rumors say that she makes many of Bibi’s political decisions. “She’s a lot more powerful than he, because he’s afraid of her,” Ben Caspit, author of an unauthorized biography of Netanyahu, told The Forward. “He will never do anything without her approval. He can’t meet people without her approval.”
To dismiss the targeting of Sara Netanyahu as merely a smear campaign misses the big picture. She’s a metonym for a larger problem. People are fed up with living in hardship and reading everyday about corruption, petty thievery, and sexual scandals among Israel’s political elite.