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Sara Netanyahu circus represents Teflon leadership

  • Paula
I have never met Sara Netanyahu, the wife of incumbent Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. I have never interviewed her, nor been in the same room as her.
by PAULA SLIER | Jul 05, 2018

Most Israelis have the same experience. And yet, this hasn’t stopped all of us from having an opinion on the woman everyone in Israel seemingly loves to hate.

I remember a cameraman once telling me that he arrived at the Netanyahu’s Jerusalem residence for an interview with the Prime Minister, only to be confronted with a screaming Sara who demanded that the crew wait outside.

It corroborates many other such tales of a woman who is depicted as being petty and difficult. Certainly, the news value of what Sara does or doesn’t do is often minimal; but the soap opera drama that is her life appeals to many.

In the latest twist, she’s been charged with fraud and breach of trust for allegedly misusing public funds to pay for restaurant meals that were delivered to her home between September 2010 and March 2013. They were valued at 360 000 shekels (R1.3 million) in total.

Her trial begins on 19 July, as the prosecution sets out to prove that she knowingly committed a crime. Sara will have to take the stand and explain herself, while an overzealous Israeli media and public pounce on her every word.

But it’s less the trial, and more the insight it offers that is important. Sara is implicated in a number of other cases aside from this one, as is the Prime Minister himself, who is embroiled in a series of corruption investigations. What does the handling of this case teach us about what we can expect in others?

Forty-one years ago, Leah Rabin, the wife of then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, was spotted in Washington making a withdrawal from an American bank account she shared with her husband.

At the time, it was illegal for Israeli citizens to hold bank accounts overseas. This one had been opened about nine years earlier, when Rabin was the Israeli Ambassador to the United States.

Legally, it should have been closed when he was recalled. Then Attorney-General Aharon Barak argued that a leader must be held to the same judicial standards as an ordinary citizen. Although Leah Rabin said she alone had operated the account, her husband publicly accepted joint moral and legal responsibility, and resigned as premier.

The “dollar account affair” as it came to be known is often quoted as one of the reasons the then left-wing Alignment – later to merge into the Labour Party – lost the 1977 elections to Likud.

Fast-forward to today. No one expects Netanyahu to resign over the charges facing his wife – least of all him, but are they really less serious than the ones Leah Rabin faced all those years ago? After all, Sara is up against a possible criminal conviction for defrauding the state. It could result in five years behind bars – although it’s unlikely she’ll be forced to face this sentence.

Benjamin Netanyahu says he wasn’t aware of anything. And why should he be? After all, he is running the country, and presumably doesn’t have time to notice who is catering the meals he eats at home.

But does this let him off the hook? When he argues that he cannot be held responsible for the actions of his wife, it is worth remembering that Yitzhak Rabin felt he could be.

This is the problem with the whole sordid affair. There is a sense of entitlement that floods the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem that allows Sara to believe she is above the law, and can behave anyway she wants.

She has said, repeatedly, that her husband would be earning millions if he was in the private sector. It suggests that she believes that because the couple has somehow “sacrificed” themselves for the good of Israel, they’re entitled to special privileges. This is, of course, nonsense.

Sara repeatedly claims the media is intrusive and reports on her every move. While she’s right on this score, the “obsession” is fuelled by a public that is horrified by behaviour that has no place in the home of the country’s top public official.

The trial is unlikely to affect Netanyahu’s popularity and political stability. The so-called “Sara problem” is part and parcel of the Netanyahu brand. If anything, Israelis tell me they pity the Prime Minister for having to go home each night to a “house of horrors” – as their residence has been described.

But it’s taken three years to get to this point; from when the police first handed in their recommendations, to an indictment being issued by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit.

Clearly, Mandelblit did not want to become the first AG to indict the wife of an Israeli Prime Minister. He offered Sara the option of producing a medical report that would have declared her unfit to stand trial, but she refused.

Now, if Mandelblit has such difficulty making a decision to indict in a case that is about meals and small-time fraud, it certainly suggests that he won’t be in a rush to make any moves that could potentially lead to a Prime Minister being dismissed. Certainly, this is what the Netanyahus are banking on.

But the Rabin “dollar account affair” should serve as a warning. So should the fact that Israeli courts have sent a Prime Minister and President to jail.

But for many watching the trials and tribulations of Sara Netanyahu in court, there is the belief that this time around, things might be different. It could take many more years before this Prime Minister is charged. If ever.

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