Earlier this week, with the members of his party gathered to vote in a new speaker to the Knesset, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took a moment to praise the outgoing one he had just reportedly ousted. “I want to say a few kind words about Rubi Rivlin,” Netanyahu said, referring to the veteran Likud politician who has served as the Israeli parliament’s head since 2009. Rivlin, however, would have none of it. “There’s no need,” he said curtly. Netanyahu insisted, and Rivlin interrupted a second time. “There’s no need, Bibi,” he said. “The people will thank me.”
Even in Israel’s prickly political landscape, such blatant, public animosity is uncommon. Immediately, Israel’s political class began offering explanations for the bad blood between the prime minister and the outgoing speaker, a beloved politician and the last remnant of an older generation of Likud legislators. Almost unanimously, the fingers of the commentariat pointed at … Sara Netanyahu.
The theory—propagated by outlets across the political spectrum—was that Israel’s first lady was livid with Rivlin for criticizing her insistence on weighing in on her husband’s political appointments over the past few weeks, and demanded that the speaker speak no more. Bibi allegedly tried to patch things up by having Rivlin and his wife over for an intimate dinner, but Sara Netanyahu apparently persevered: Last week, Rivlin was fired without explanation.
If the above sounds like salacious gossip, it’s because it is: None of the parties directly involved addressed the matter on the record. As such, many in Israel were uncomfortable taking the allegations seriously, insisting that every political ecosystem is shaped by the personalities of its key players, so to focus on the prime minister’s wife was simply malicious.
But that was last week.
This week came another political scandal—again with Bibi’s wife reportedly at the center. With a coalition seemingly at hand between Netanyahu’s Likud, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, and Naftali Bennett’s Ha’Bayit Ha’Yehudi, news broke yesterday that all talks have temporarily been suspended. The reason? Netanyahu’s sudden insistence that neither Lapid nor Bennett be named deputy prime ministers.
It’s a position nearly impossible to understand given the fact that Netanyahu has been considerably weakened by the recent election and now depends on Bennett and Lapid for his political survival. Plus, in recent weeks both men have made it clear that neither would challenge Netanyahu for the government’s top job, and both have recently expressed contentment with the portfolios offered them—Lapid as the minister of finance and Bennett as the minister of economics and commerce. For the prime minister to risk everything over a title that carries no real authority or meaning, and that is customarily awarded to the heads of the coalition’s biggest parties, is hard to fathom.
“The fact that Netanyhau decided to do away with the titles of deputy prime minister has to do with one simple fact,” an unnamed senior official in Bennett’s party told an Israeli blog this week. “This is his payment to his wife for inviting her sworn nemesis, Naftali Bennett, into the Cabinet. Sara simply doesn’t want Naftali to, God forbid, have the honor of calling himself her husband’s deputy.”
Bennett and Sara Netanyahu have reportedly been on bad terms for some years, since the former served as Bibi Netanyhu’s chief of staff. Their feud deepened earlier this year when Bennett made, and later apologized for, a joke portraying the first lady in an unflattering light. After the cancellation of the deputy prime minister positions was announced yesterday, Bennett’s representatives refused to show up to a scheduled meeting with Likud representatives and finalize the agreement between both parties.
This, of course, leaves Israel in a precarious position. The recent conflict over the titles will most likely be resolved, and barring major last-minute developments, a new Cabinet will be sworn in early next week. But the rumors about Mrs. Netanyahu’s sizable influence over her husband’s decisions, uneasy as they might make serious-minded observers, can no longer be ignored. With former political allies of all stripes telling similar versions of the same stories, the prime minister—who has, as of yet, refused to dignify the accusations by addressing them—would do well to provide the public with an open answer to this question.
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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.