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Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Politics and the Family

What do Sara Netanyahu, Chris Cuomo, and Gilat Bennett have in common? All three are family members of political leaders whose actions straddle (overstep?) the fine line between family loyalty and ethical politics. The question is where should such a “line” be drawn?

First, Sara Netanyahu has been found guilty of several misdemeanors (verbally abusing household help) and accused (but not put on trial) for demanding gifts from rich “friends” and erstwhile political patrons, running into the hundreds of thousands of shekels (not just the champagne and expensive cigars for which her husband is standing trial: File 1000, among others).

However, the most egregious activity has reappeared during testimony at Bibi Netanyahu’s trial (first reports were published two years ago during the police interrogations), given recently in court by Nir Hefetz, one of his former closest confidantes: Sara (along with their adult son Yair) pressured Bibi to close Channel 10 that had broadcast critical exposes, and also were involved in getting the Walla news site to cover the prime minister in the most favorable light possible.

Second, Chris Cuomo, one of CNN’s leading news anchors, was recently fired by the company for being heavily involved behind the scenes in helping his brother Andrew Cuomo (New York state’s governor), accused of serial sexual harassment, to stave off potential impeachment. This included efforts to uncover the contents of upcoming articles at other news outlets, including Politico and The New Yorker, as well as statements he made on-air in support of his brother.

Third and finally, Gilat Bennett, the Israeli prime minister’s wife, decided to take her kids for an overseas vacation, despite her husband having urged (not mandated) Israelis not to go to overseas during the uncertainty surrounding the latest Omicron variant. Many Israelis saw this as the height of hypocrisy, undermining trust in the government’s Covid-19 health policy.

Back to the opening paragraph: is there a common denominator here? Yes and no. On the one hand, all three cases do involve the intersection between family and politics. On the other hand, there are significant differences between the three cases, distinctions that suggest the limits of family involvement in political affairs.

First, there is obviously a big difference between three levels of activity: borderline (or clearly) illegal e.g., Sara Netanyahu; highly unethical professionally e.g., Chris Cuomo; unseemly and not politically smart e.g., Gilat Bennett.

Second, there’s a significant difference regarding transparency. Sara and Chris did what(ever) they did behind the scenes, trying to hide (most of) their actions from public scrutiny. Naftali Bennett immediately announced to the public that after trying to convince his wife not to go overseas, she decided to do so anyway for the benefit of her children (she had promised them a long overdue vacation for quite a while).

Third, and the most important difference of all: whether these actions impacted public policy. The case of Sara Netanyahu can most probably be answered in the affirmative: beyond demanding giftgiving, on the face of it she used the “cudgel” of a potentially huge windfall (over a billion shekels!) for Shaul Alovitch who desperately needed Bibi’s policy decision in favor of Bezeq (trial File 4000 based in large part on the period when Netanyahu back then served as Communications Minister as well as Prime Minister). Again, as reported this week, Sara won’t be put on trial for this, mainly because it would then set back for several months her husband’s trial on these charges.

Chris Cuomo’s intervention was clearly unseemly from a political standpoint but not criminal. However, it was certainly ethically unacceptable from a professional, journalistic standpoint. In other words, here the ethical problem lay in the field of journalism and not within the political realm per se. (He is also being accused of sexually harassing a female journalist in the past, but that’s not relevant to the discussion here.)

Gilat Bennett did nothing illegal or even unethical – nor was her husband being hypocritical in any sense. In this case, as in others like it where the political leader and his/her spouse disagree on family matters, one can ask (as was bandied about by the political Opposition): “if he can’t control his own wife, how does he expect to control the government?” This is not only tendentious but misses two important points. First, doesn’t a leader’s spouse have any independence of thought and action? What happened to the feminist argument that “she” doesn’t have to be “his” handmaiden? Second and once again: the PM is in charge of governmental policy; domestic policy is not his exclusive prerogative, nor does it directly impact the broader public, notwithstanding some broad, psychological impact.

Americans are used to the “First Lady” being part of a package deal when a president is elected. That’s problematic because it seems to “justify” the spouse’s involvement in policymaking. Of course, one can’t stop leaders discussing things with their spouse, but we should expect that to be “small talk” and not decisive in forming policy. Israel never had that approach – until the Netanyahus entered the scene. After their having changed expectations about the “political” role of the PM’s spouse, Sara’s successor Gilat Bennett is now being lambasted for not taking her husband’s policy into account.

Israel would do well to return to its traditional approach: the PM runs the country; the spouse (in consultation with the PM) decides “domestic family” policy. As for national matters, the less spouses, siblings, and children are involved in their close family member’s political work, the better. Family and nation are best left each to its own respective field of play.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book is VIRTUALITY AND HUMANITY: VIRTUAL PRACTICE AND ITS EVOLUTION FROM PRE-HISTORY TO THE 21ST CENTURY (Springer Nature, Dec. 2021): The book's description, substantive Preface and full Table of Contents can be freely accessed here: https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-981-16-6526-4#toc. For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see: www.ProfSLW.com
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