With the Return of Netanyahu in Israel, His Family Is Back, Too

JERUSALEM — When voters in Israel chose to return Benjamin Netanyahu to power they also elevated two people they didn’t elect: his wife Sara and his son Yair, who have long been intertwined with his political career.

Ms. Netanyahu and Yair, 31, have helped shape Mr. Netanyahu’s election campaigns and rallied his base. But they have also been accused by critics of wielding undue influence over Mr. Netanyahu by pressuring him over policy issues, weighing in on political appointments and, in his son’s case, even meddling in matters of national security.

Their habitual appearances in both the news media, in often sensational and lurid stories, and the Israeli courts have also added to the reality show-like atmosphere around the family.

Now, with Mr. Netanyahu, 73, in power again as prime minister of Israel’s most right-wing and religiously conservative government, even as he is standing trial on corruption charges, many Israelis fear that the unelected members of the family will play an outsize role in his political life and decision making.

“They set the tone. Completely,” Ben Caspit, an Israeli political commentator for Al-Monitor, a news site, and a biographer of Mr. Netanyahu, said of the presence of Ms. Netanyahu and the couple’s son on the political stage.

A retired general testified in court on Jan. 1 that a decade ago, Ms. Netanyahu, 64, an educational psychologist, interviewed him for 45 minutes for a job as her husband’s military secretary after Mr. Netanyahu left the room.

Yair Netanyahu caused an uproar last month after publicly leveling treason accusations against the police and state prosecutors who he said had “framed” his father and suggesting that the proscribed punishment for that was execution.

“It’s serious, and it’s not good,” Ariel Saad, 37, an advertising manager in Tel Aviv, said of the presence of Mr. Netanyahu’s family so close to the center of power. “Netanyahu is very pliable,” he added, expressing a common perception in Israel. “How can you run the country under such circumstances?”

Ms. Netanyahu, center, arriving at the Magistrate’s Court in 2018 in Jerusalem.Credit…Amit Shabi/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The Netanyahus and their backers say that the Israeli media has been nursing an obsession with the family that borders on persecution since the 1990s, during Mr. Netanyahu’s first term in office, when Ms. Netanyahu fired a nanny for burning soup.

“I could stand here till tomorrow morning, your honor, and tell you what the news media has done to me,” Ms. Netanyahu told a judge last year in court during another defamation case. “But let’s save the time,” she said.

What to Know About Israel’s New Government

  • Netanyahu’s Return: Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, returned to power at the helm of the most right-wing administration in Israeli history.
  • A Provocative Visit: In one of his first acts as Israel’s minister of national security, the ultranationalist Itamar Ben-Gvir toured a volatile holy site in Jerusalem, drawing a furious reaction from Palestinian leaders.
  • The Far Right’s Rise: To win election, Mr. Netanyahu and his far-right allies harnessed perceived threats to Israel’s Jewish identity after ethnic unrest and the subsequent inclusion of Arab lawmakers in the government.
  • Arab Allies: Mr. Netanyahu’s far-right allies have a history of making anti-Arab statements. Three Arab countries that normalized relations with Israel in 2020 appear unconcerned.

“I think that the media hides all the wonderful things that I do,” she added.

But over the past year, a number of people once close to Mr. Netanyahu have lifted a veil on some of the family’s inner dealings, speaking openly on television and in court, under oath, about episodes that have raised alarms.

Ms. Netanyahu has garnered many sensational headlines over the years after getting in trouble over household expenses and getting sued by domestic staff for abusive behavior. Now the perceived growing influence of Yair Netanyahu over his father and his strident voice on radio and social media are getting increased attention.

In November, Yair Netanyahu joined a right-wing Twitter campaign berating the army’s top brass for suspending two soldiers from operational activity for physically and verbally abusing left-wing Israeli activists in the occupied West Bank.

In October, within hours of a television report saying that Israel and Lebanon were near an agreement to demarcate their maritime economic border, he tweeted or retweeted almost 80 posts slamming the deal, reached by the last government, as a shameful surrender to Lebanon — a message that his father, as the opposition leader, quickly incorporated into his campaign.

In June, Yair Netanyahu wrote a column for ICE, an Israeli online publication, detailing the various rulers and conquests of the Holy Land, starting from biblical times, concluding that the Jews were the sole rightful owners. His father made a similar case in his autobiography, “Bibi: My Story,” that was published this fall, and the new government’s guidelines began with a declaration of the Jewish people’s “exclusive and inalienable right to all parts of the Land of Israel.”

The younger Mr. Netanyahu has no official role in his father’s office and says he earns money as a right-wing radio and podcast host and as a social media influencer. A spokesman for the family declined a request to interview Ms. Netanyahu and Yair Netanyahu and a request for comment from the prime minister.

A person close to the family, who was not authorized to speak about them publicly, said Yair Netanyahu acted independently and there was no coordination between father and son.

Yair Netanyahu, center, during a Likud party campaign event in 2019 in Tel Aviv.Credit…Abir Sultan/EPA-EFE, via Shutterstock

Former and current aides to Mr. Netanyahu say the family is a loving and tight-knit one, and that Ms. Netanyahu and Yair Netanyahu provide critical support for the prime minister. A younger son, Avner, 28, appears less involved in politics but has openly expressed his admiration for his father. (Mr. Netanyahu’s daughter from a previous marriage remains in the background.)

The staunch domestic support has contributed to Mr. Netanyahu’s political longevity and success, experts say.

“Those are the people Bibi most trusts; they adore him,” said Mazal Mualem, also an Israeli political commentator for Al-Monitor and the author of a recent biography of Mr. Netanyahu, “Cracking the Netanyahu Code,” referring to him by his nickname.

Mr. Netanyahu does not always go along with their demands, Ms. Mualem said, and often must juggle things at home.

“But there’s no doubt they are influential,” she added of Sara and Yair Netanyahu, “for better and for worse.”

Mr. Netanyahu’s corruption trial has also highlighted unflattering accusations about the family, with key witnesses testifying about demands made by the household to wealthy businesspeople for deliveries of crates of champagne, luxury cigars and jewelry.

Mr. Netanyahu denies all wrongdoing and says the cases against him are collapsing in court.

Some of the most sensational accounts of goings-on in the household and interference in decision-making came out during a libel suit that the Netanyahu family brought against Ehud Olmert, a former prime minister, after he described them as being “mentally ill.”

Called to testify by the defense, Nir Hefetz, a former Netanyahu confidant and, from 2014 to 2018, a spokesman for the family who later turned state’s witness in the corruption trial, told the court that Yair Netanyahu once burst into a meeting that his father was holding with officials including Moshe Kahlon, the finance minister, about a plan to turn Israel’s broadcasting authority into a corporation.

Nir Hefetz, a former Netanyahu confidant, in 2021 outside a Jerusalem courthouse.Credit…Pool photo by Jack Guez

“Then begins a show that if I wasn’t up here on the witness stand, your honor, you would not believe,” Mr. Hefetz told the judge, describing how the younger Mr. Netanyahu got down on all fours, impersonating a dog, and crudely berated his father for listening to Mr. Kahlon. At some point, Mr. Hefetz added, Ms. Netanyahu came in and backed up her son’s demand to scrap the plan.

Mr. Hefetz also described how Mr. Netanyahu considered canceling an official visit to India in 2017 after Yair Netanyahu had stopped eating, according to Ms. Netanyahu, because he was not being consulted about policy decisions.

But the person close to the Netanyahu family said he had personally seen Mr. Netanyahu clear all non-relevant people, including his son, out of the room when he needed to make decisions.

Mr. Hefetz is suing Yair Netanyahu in another case for an alleged breach of his privacy in several social media posts. Mr. Hefetz also sold his diaries and hours of tape recordings, including private conversations with Ms. Netanyahu, to an Israeli TV network, Channel 13, and gave a lengthy interview that ran before the election.

He recounted how he was called by an aide of Mr. Netanyahu’s to intervene in 2017 when his son had urged him, against the advice of the security services, not to remove metal detectors at the entrances of the Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem that had been the source of days of violent protests. That advice was ultimately ignored, and the detectors were removed.

Mr. Hefetz also said that Yair Netanyahu persuaded his father to give a hero’s welcome to an Israeli security guard who had been involved in a confrontation at the Israeli Embassy in Amman, Jordan, that led to the deaths of two Jordanians, exacerbating a diplomatic crisis with the country.

Mr. Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party responded to the Channel 13 program in a statement saying, “How many more times will we have to hear this recycled nonsense?” and describing it as biased and based on “old, moldy rumors and false gossip.”

Mr. Netanyahu, his wife and their son Yair at a polling station in Jerusalem during the general election in 2013.Credit…Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

Yair Netanyahu is now involved in another defamation case in which he and a former left-wing lawmaker, Stav Shaffir, are suing each other. The younger Mr. Netanyahu was temporarily removed from the courtroom during a late-November hearing because of his constant interruptions and muttered a sexist slur against Ms. Shaffir on his way out, according to court reporters.

“I thought nobody would hear,” Yair Netanyahu wrote in a subsequent Twitter thread, blaming the acoustics and complaining of “character assassination” by the news media.

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