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Is covering Sara Netanyahu’s histrionics good journalism?

  • paula_slier
The Israeli media loves to hate Sara Netanyahu, wife of the incumbent Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This week, a leaked audio recording of her yelling and scolding a family publicist over a gossip column, published nine years ago, only served to increase that dislike.
by PAULA SLIER | Feb 01, 2018

In stark contrast to the tape where Sara is heard screaming that her educational qualifications were overlooked in the article, she hasn’t said a word about the exchange since it came to light.

For the past two decades Sara, her husband and their supporters have accused the Israeli media of conducting a crusade against him – through her.

They insist she’s the victim of a malicious and unrelenting left-leaning Israeli press that takes delight in highlighting the shenanigans of the Netanyahu family and, by extension, the Likud party and the government.

When US President Donald Trump visited Israel last year, Sara was overheard telling his wife, Melania, that, like the Trumps, the couple is loved by Israelis despite being hated by the media.

While this may or may not be true, there’s no denying it’s the job of journalists to shine a light on public figures and hold them accountable for the office to which they were elected.

The problem is that Sara wasn’t elected to any office. Hence, it’s only fair to ask whether the media’s preoccupation with her is unfair and intrusive.

The crux of the problem is the grey area between the personal and the political, the home and the office. If it can be proven that Sara’s behaviour directly affects the prime minister and his ability to govern, then one could argue that the media serves the public good by highlighting her every move.

If the tantrums – and there have reportedly been many over the years – stop Netanyahu from doing his job well, then that's something the Israeli voting public need to know.

But who can answer this question? Who can say for certain what impact Sara has on her husband and his decisions? The prime minister has come out and defended his wife, both on Facebook and in a much-aired television broadcast. On air, he stressed that everyone “gets angry and says a few words that he didn’t mean”.

But in the case of Sara, it’s never been just a few words. There have been lawsuits by domestic workers accusing her of bullying. There are police investigations into her diversion of tens of thousands of dollars of state money for meal expenses. There are allegations of using state funds to buy outdoor furniture and to pay for private electrical work, and the list continues.

The perception among Israelis is that Sara has exploited her husband’s office to finance her own private tastes and that she is mercurial and conniving, often interfering in state affairs.

Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, Israel’s education and justice ministers respectively, both worked for Netanyahu, and on the orders of Sara, were fired from their posts. They went on to co-found the “My Israel” extra-parliamentary movement. Today, it serves as governing coalition partners through The Jewish Home political party.

Sara’s first husband went public, warning that her access to secret documents was endangering the state. He even wrote a book – which, in the end, wasn’t published – reportedly detailing her mood swings and what she was prone to do in anger.

The headache for Netanyahu doesn’t end there. A few weeks ago, a recording of their son, Yair, was broadcast by Israeli television in which he is heard making vulgar jokes about women while partying in strip clubs. He was heard asking for cash from the son of a billionaire who’d profited from his father’s official actions as the country’s prime minister. All of this while being chauffeured and guarded at the state’s expense.

It's still too early to assess the impact and damage these stories will have on the prime minister’s political standing, especially when he himself is under investigation for far bigger scandals.

But it begs a bigger concern: How much is Israel, its security and its public standing bruised by all this Sara bashing?

The day after the recording broke, Netanyahu was in Moscow, where he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin about their ongoing military co-operation in Syria and Iran’s growing influence in the region.

But most of the Israeli media were more fixated on replaying Sara’s tantrum and dissecting it, than analysing what was being discussed in the Russian capital.

An Israeli prime minister needs to be seen to be tough in a particularly hostile neighbourhood. Yet this no-nonsense image that Netanyahu has worked hard to cultivate is no doubt undermined by stories of an unstable, hysterical wife who keeps him in line at home.

There’s a joke in Israel that Sara runs the country... except it’s not particularly funny.

No one can fault Netanyahu for standing by his wife. But when his official Jerusalem residence is referred to as a “house of horrors” in the press, and his wife is depicted as a hysterical woman with a string of accusations against her, it does seem that something is afoot.

If a trivial matter like a gossip column sets off such a furious tirade, how is the atmosphere in the Netanyahu household when much more serious issues arise? And if – and it would only seem logical – this affects the way the prime minister is running the country, then the media has an obligation to cover “the Sara story”, while always heeding the murky line between sensationalist and responsible journalism.

Paula Slier is the Middle East Bureau Chief of RT, the founder and CEO of Newshound Media and the inaugural winner of the Europcar Woman in Leadership Award of the South African Absa Jewish Achievers.

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