Meet Israel’s First Lady, Sara Netanyahu

“Sara Netanyahu, the prime minister’s wife, closest adviser, and fiercest defender, is seen as a mix of Lady Macbeth and Eva Perón, but without the charm or the cult following”

By Yossi Melman and Dan Raviv in Air Mail: When her husband is in a meeting, she bursts into his office and declares that she urgently needs to talk to him. But her real intention, obvious to all who have seen the performance time and time again, is to eyeball and assess the guest. A few minutes are enough for her to make a judgment.

Meet Sara Netanyahu, the third wife of the controversial, wily, and eloquent politician known by his childhood nickname, “Bibi.” Benjamin Netanyahu is Israel’s longest-serving leader, as he has been prime minister for 16 out of the last 28 years.

A strongman in Israel’s feisty democratic politics, Bibi is the bulldozer who for good or bad—mostly for bad—has been shaping his country’s destiny in the 21st century. Sara, at age 65, is the powerful engine behind him.

“The most important value for her is loyalty,” a recent close aide of Bibi told us. Like other advisers to the Netanyahus who were interviewed for AIR MAIL, this person asked not to be named. “That means loyalty to her husband and loyalty to their two sons. All her decisions and worldview are determined through the prism of loyalty. ‘Are you with us or against us?’”

Politically connected Israelis, including many in Bibi’s Likud party, speak of Sara’s deep involvement in choosing senior military and security chiefs and other government officials. She is credited with a strong and accurate assessment of who is likely to be loyal, and many sources say Bibi invariably goes along with her preferences. Yossi Cohen, who in 2021 completed five years as Mossad chief, is one example.

Even when highly classified intelligence is being discussed, Sara wants to be on the scene. Before he died, in 2016, former Mossad director Meir Dagan told us of a meeting with Bibi in 2008 at the prime minister’s official residence, on Balfour Street in Jerusalem.

The subject was a super-secret operation against Iran. “Suddenly in the middle of the meeting the door opened, and Sara entered the room. I was surprised and stopped my briefing,” Dagan said. “Bibi looked at me and mumbled that it’s OK. After long seconds, I recovered from my shock and replied, ‘Mr. Prime Minister, I am sorry but she doesn’t have the top-secret clearance needed to discuss state secrets.’” She allegedly left the room angrily.

Afterward, Bibi’s own aides are said to have expressed even greater astonishment, but in their case it was because they had not yet witnessed any government official with the nerve to say no to Sara.

Since the start of the Gaza war, in October, she seems to be keeping her advice to the prime minister private. Yet he is undoubtedly getting an earful at home as he juggles life-and-death decisions on military strategy, the choice of whether or not to pursue a deal to free hostages, and how to manage a fractious emergency war Cabinet.

“Bibi lets Sara interfere on almost every issue, and in fact she is an important part of the decision-making process,” said Shaul Kimhi, a psychology professor at Tel-Hai College, who used to write character profiles of Arab leaders for Israeli intelligence. Co-author of a 2017 research paper, “Behavior Analysis of Benjamin Netanyahu,” Kimhi told us: “Bibi is controlled by his wife and cooperates with Sara in a most inexplicable way.”

A few of Bibi’s close aides, including Shlomo Filber and Nir Hefetz, agreed to cooperate when the police started investigating Mr. Netanyahu’s alleged bribe-taking, deals favoring media companies in exchange for favorable coverage, and possible corruption in military procurement. The probe began in 2016, criminal charges were filed in 2019, and an extremely slow-moving trial began in May 2020. It’s on hold now, while the war in Gaza continues. The prime minister, who is 74, could face up to 13 years in prison if convicted. He pleaded not guilty on all counts, and both Bibi and Sara have channeled Donald Trump by claiming that the case is an unfair “witch hunt.”

Filber, under pressure from Netanyahu supporters, recanted, and prosecutors have reclassified him as a hostile witness. Hefetz, according to trial participants, is considered by Bibi and Sara to be a traitor who violated the Netanyahu version of omertà. Both a Netanyahu lawyer and the prime minister’s press office did not respond to requests for comment.

Sara has a long and unforgiving memory, yet in fairness her intuition has been sound in differentiating between friend and foe. “She was the first to warn her husband many years ago that Naftali Bennett, his former aide, is very ambitious and poses a threat,” a well-informed source in Israeli right-wing politics told us. “No one, including Bibi, believed her. But eventually it was Bennett who replaced Bibi as prime minister,” before Netanyahu made a comeback in the election of November 2022.

Sara is a political animal who is nurturing her sons for leadership positions. She seems highly proud of the elder brother, Yair Netanyahu, who, at 32, lived most of his adult life at his parents’ home, recently relocating to Miami, and for a while had a program on a right-wing radio station. He is unremittingly active on social networks, commenting on nearly every subject whether domestic or international. Young Netanyahu’s posts resemble those of Donald Trump Jr., except the Israeli version is more impudent. Yair claimed that Israeli security agencies had attempted a coup d’état against his father.

A close and longtime observer of the family told us, “Yair defined himself as a genius and an expert in global and security affairs with a better understanding of the United States than his father’s. So he didn’t hesitate to insult his own father on numerous occasions, calling him weak.” More here.