Jerusalem — The scene signaled a grave national emergency: Dozens of riot police stormed the streets of Tel Aviv as crowds of anti-government protesters screamed and yelled. Their mission: to rescue the wife of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from an elegant salon where she had her hair done.
Wednesday night’s siege of the beauty salon by protesters, accompanied by chants of “shame, shame,” put a spotlight on Mrs. Netanyahu, a divisive figure who has long been intertwined with her husband’s political career.
He was disparaged for living a lavish lifestyle at the taxpayers’ expense – an image only reinforced by his decision to get his hair done in the center of a city which riots turned violent for the first time on Wednesday.
The Israelis also accused Mrs. Netanyahu, a former flight attendant turned educational psychologist, of exerting undue influence over Netanyahu, pressuring him for political appointments and political issues.
Here’s a look at what has made Netanyahu’s wife so controversial over the past three decades on the political scene.
HEY BIG SPENDER
Ms. Netanyahu, 64, has made headlines over the years for allegedly illegally using public funds, overspending on household expenses and pocketing gifts from world leaders, among other things. In 2019, he accepted a plea deal to settle allegations that he misused $100,000 in public funds to order lavish meals from celebrity chefs at the prime minister’s official residence, even though he already had a chef on the government payroll. He was also embroiled in Netanyahu’s corruption trial, which triggered the country’s years-long political crisis.
In exchange for political favors, Netanyahu reportedly accepted gifts from his billionaire friends, including tens of thousands of dollars worth of champagne crates and extravagant jewelry for Mrs. Netanyahu, and made backroom deals with newspaper publishers to get more favorable coverage of his wife. He denies any wrongdoing. Most recently, a parliamentary committee approved new spending money for the Netanyahus, including increasing Mrs. Netanyahu’s clothing and makeup expenses by several thousand dollars a year.
“The general feeling is that this is a very greedy couple,” said Israeli journalist Amir Oren. “It has a kind of Marie Antoinette feel to it.”
Over the years, Ms. Netanyahu’s domestic helper has consistently accused her of explosive tirades and mistreatment. In one case, a leaked phone conversation surfaced in which Ms. Netanyahu screamed at her publicist about the omission of her education in a gossip column. In another, the family’s nanny said Ms. Netanyahu fired her for burning a pot of soup and kicked her to the curb without her clothes or passport.
Two domestic workers have won damages in a lawsuit accusing Ms Netanyahu of making their lives miserable. In court testimony, one of them revealed Mrs. Netanyahu’s taste for pink champagne and other expensive luxuries. Over the years, friends and colleagues have shared accounts of Ms. Netanyahu’s extreme outbursts and unhealthy obsession with cleanliness. Netanyahu’s family portrayed itself as the victim of a press war. They filed a defamation lawsuit against former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert after he described them as “mentally ill”.
CALLING THE SHOTS?
Critics of Netanyahu’s family have accused Ms. Netanyahu of meddling in the prime minister’s decision-making. Former officials recently testified in court that Ms. Netanyahu exercised undue influence over top security appointments. In January, a retired general testified that Ms. Netanyahu conducted a 45-minute interview with him as the prime minister’s military secretary after Netanyahu left the room. “In the past few years, there has not been a high-ranking official appointed who was not consulted or influenced by Sara,” said Gayil Talshir, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
They have been accused of pushing Netanyahu further to the right and aiding his government’s determination to overhaul the country’s justice system, a plan that has sparked the largest protests in Israeli history and widespread condemnation in Israeli society and around the world.
Given her past legal troubles, critics argue that she has as much a stake in the government’s plan to weaken the court system as her husband. Mrs. Netanyahu and her son, Yair, have repeatedly incited Israel’s “elites” – the media, bureaucrats, civil servants – similarly to the lightning rod of the disputes. Netanyahu insists that his wife stay out of state affairs.
BAD HAIR DAY
Because of Ms Netanyahu’s public profile, the opposition argues that she is not simply a first lady – but a legitimate political target for the protest movement. Yair Golan, a former general and former Meretz lawmaker, told Kan radio that “with all due respect, Sara Netanyahu is a political figure” and is involved in key appointments and decisions.
But the dramatic scenes of the police, the secret service and the helicopters calling Mrs. Netanyahu from the hair changed the course of the “day of disorder.” Netanyahu posted a photo on Twitter of him hugging his wife late at night, saying. returned home safely and warned that such “anarchy” would lead to loss of life.
The incident, which grabbed headlines even after police fired water cannons, stun grenades and tear gas at pro-democracy protesters across the country, once again highlighted Netanyahu as a master political manipulator, Talshir said. “He played it well, portraying his wife as the real victim of yesterday’s protest,” he said. “However, from the perspective of the protesters, Sara played a key role in dividing the country and turning it towards autocracy.”