In the remaking of the Bibi brand, a decade-long project that preceded Binyamin Netanyahu’s return to power last year, the Sarah Problem was a major headache.
Long before Israeli voters booted him out of office in 1999, the first lady’s image as a highly-strung, grasping, freebie-loving harridan was well engraved on the national psyche. Newspapers regularly chronicled her tantrums and ego trips, supplemented by rumour and innuendo.
Bibi’s advisers decided to play up his perceived strengths as a statesman, a master economist and a staunch defender of Israel, while gently airbrushing Sarah out of the picture. The New Sarah shunned the spotlight, preferring to dedicate herself to her dual roles as mother of two teenage boys and diligent children’s psychologist.
The strategy seemed to work. Occasional hints about her backroom influence appeared in the media and on Israel’s most popular satirical programme, Eretz Nehederet, she was portrayed as a violently neurotic nutcase. But the public seemed content for Sarah to drop out of view. And in the last election campaign, none of the Likud’s opponents used her to attack Bibi.
Now it all seems to have been for nought. The newspapers quoted liberally from the civil lawsuit. But worse, the housekeeper’s story was a signal to political reporters that Sarah was once again fair game. Out came the reports of her inordinate influence in the Prime Minister’s office, of her veto on policy-making and her personal vetting of every new appointment to his staff.
Mr Netanyahu realised just how damaging these reports may be and that’s why in his first public response to the allegations, he emphasised that “my wife, Sarah, does not intervene in matters of state”.
He knows very well that while the public will ultimately forgive him for having an obsessive-compulsive egomaniac wife at home. Letting her get her hands on the levers of power is quite another thing.