Yair Netanyahu’s unstated role as a top political adviser to his father has been an established fact for years. Now, the prime minister’s son is fraying Israel’s U.S. ties and sparking friction at home
April 11th, 14PM April 11th, 15PM
For the first time since returning to office three months ago, Benjamin Netanyahu held a press conference on Monday night and answered questions from the media. Why now, in the midst of Passover, when many Israelis are abroad on vacation? Perhaps because of a series of disastrous public opinion polls, showing a huge drop in support for his government and growing dissatisfaction with his own leadership.
There were questions about his government’s controversial judicial overhaul, which he had temporarily put on hold until after Israel’s Independence Day, in just over two weeks. He was asked about the terror wave that his government has failed to contain since January, and the crisis with the U.S. administration, which is still denying him a coveted invitation to the White House, more than 100 days into his current term.
Netanyahu seemed irritated by those questions, but it was a different one that truly got on his nerves: a question about the influence his oldest son, Yair Netanyahu, seems to have these days on his father’s decision-making. “Yair has no influence,” the prime minister said. “He is an independent person with his own opinions.”
Several years ago, a question like this would have been dismissed by most Israelis as gossip, and the entire issue would have probably been ignored by Netanyahu’s political rivals, who had made a habit of dismissing embarrassing stories about the Netanyahu family by stating that they want to argue with the national leader, not his scandal-prone wife and son. But that is no longer the case.
Minutes after Netanyahu finished his press conference, which he opened by baselessly blaming the Israeli opposition and the protest movement against his judicial overhaul for the recent uptick in terror attacks, former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett went on television and blasted Netanyahu’s performance as “irresponsible, anti-leadership, almost a Yair Netanyahu speech.” The next morning, former Finance and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a former Netanyahu ally turned bitter enemy, said on Army Radio that Netanyahu is no longer calling the shots, but is merely carrying out the orders of his 32-year-old son.
Yair Netanyahu’s unstated role as a senior political adviser to his father has been an established fact for years, especially since Netanyahu’s come-from-behind victory in the 2015 Israeli election. Netanyahu’s two most influential media advisers are personally close to Yair – both served with him in the IDF spokesperson’s unit (one of Yair’s former commanders there recently accused him on Twitter of being lazy and contributing nothing to the unit; Yair, who until two weeks ago was very active on Twitter, did not respond to the accusations.)
One of the first episodes in which his alleged influence on his father became apparent was the Elor Azaria affair in 2016. After an Israeli soldier was filmed shooting, execution-style, an injured Palestinian who was helplessly laying on the ground more than 10 minutes after he failed to stab a group of soldiers in the West Bank, the military ordered an immediate investigation into the unlawful killing. Netanyahu at first gave his full backing to the military leadership, saying the incident did not represent the values of the IDF and should be denounced.
But within hours, he had changed his mind, and called the soldier’s father on the phone to offer his support. In between, according to media reports, Yair and his young friends from the media team showed Netanyahu thousands of angry reactions on social media by frustrated voters who had expected him to back Azaria, the soldier. The military eventually charged Azaria and sent him to jail, but the Prime Minister’s U-turn, against the official position of his generals, was an early sign of the younger Netanyahu’s growing impact.
Former top Netanyahu aide Nir Hefetz, today a state witness against the prime minister, described several other instances where Yair, who is 32 years old and lives with his parents while claiming that he makes a living from speaking engagements, influenced his father’s decisions on national affairs. One was the “metal detector” crisis” in 2017, when Netanyahu insisted, against the advice of Israel’s security chiefs, on placing metal detectors at the entrance to Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, and backed down after the controversial decision led to an outburst of violence and a diplomatic crisis with Jordan. According to Hefetz’s testimony, Yair played a key role in the process.
A year later, according to Hefetz and other former Netanyahu aides, the son-turned-adviser pushed the prime minister to cancel an agreement with the U.N. that was supposed to significantly decrease the number of asylum seekers in Israel by resettling them in Western countries, in exchange for granting an equal number of asylum seekers temporary resident status. Mere hours after Netanyahu ceremoniously announced the agreement to the press, he changed course and denounced the deal. Yair, who proudly holds far-right views and has associated himself with politicians like Viktor Orban, opposed the agreement, and as a result, the number of asylum seekers in Israel has stayed the same.
If these past episodes weren’t enough to shine a spotlight on Yair Netanyahu’s influence, the spiraling crisis that Israel has been experiencing since Netanyahu returned to power 100 days ago has finally convinced many Israelis that the country has a “Yair Netanyahu problem.”
One clear manifestation of it was Netanyahu’s reaction to the protest wave against his judicial overhaul. The last time he faced such widespread and popular demonstrations against his government was during the 2011 cost-of-living protests. Back then, his strategy was to defuse the anger by offering dialogue setting up an expert committee and trying to convince the public that he was listening to the criticism coming from the streets. None of that was on display this time around. Week after week, as the protests kept growing, Netanyahu attacked the demonstrators as anarchists who were harming the country and refusing to accept his election victory.
His response made no political sense, serving as fuel to the fire for the protest movement. But it was mild and polite compared to what his oldest son had to say, via his 170,000 follower-strong Twitter account. Yair compared the demonstrators, many of them army reservists and veterans of war, to terrorists and Nazis. His father never repudiated his tweets or distanced himself from the violent message they contained.
The only time Netanyahu offered a half-hearted denunciation of his son’s extreme positions came in late December, when Yair said on his weekly radio show, broadcast on the right-wing Galei Israel station, that the police officers and state prosecutors involved in his father’s indictment had committed an act of treason, and the punishment for it “is not jail time”, hinting that they should be executed. His shocking words led Netanyahu’s office to issue a statement on his behalf, saying he loves Yair but doesn’t agree with his choice of words. When Netanyahu Jr. called the demonstrators against his father terrorists, the Prime Minister couldn’t muster even that kind of response.
Pundits in Israel have made contradictory arguments when discussing Yair’s current level of influence. No one doubts that it exists, but while some pundits, both left and right, have dubbed Netanyahu’s far-right government “the first Yair Netanyahu coalition”, others have said that this approach removes too much blame from the Prime Minister himself. The truth may very well be a combination of both positions: Yair Netanyahu is more powerful than ever, but that does not mean Benjamin Netanyahu isn’t ultimately responsible for the failures of his government.
The best example to support such an argument is Netanyahu’s handling of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. Three weeks ago, Gallant became the first Likud minister to privately and publicly call on Netanyahu to halt the judicial overhaul legislation. He expressed grave concern that the legislation could lead to a disintegration of entire military units and harm the country’s social cohesion, at a time when threats from Israel’s enemies were imminent.
Yair Netanyahu shared a series of tweets attacking Gallant, accusing him of showing weakness in his response to reservists who had stated they won’t show up for duty if the legislation were to pass. A few days later, Netanyahu announced he was firing Gallant. But then, hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets, Likud ministers expressed reservations, and Netanyahu backtracked: he froze Gallant’s firing, and ultimately reversed it completely, and halted the legislation until next month.
What does Yair Netanyahu think about all this? We cannot say. For the past two weeks, after a court ordered him to pay 70,000 shekels to former Labor lawmaker Stav Shaffir in a defamation case, he has stopped tweeting and disappeared from the public eye. The judge in the defamation case didn’t just rule against him, but also rejected a counter-suit in which Yair claimed that Shafir hurt his reputation by calling him a racist bum who lives on taxpayer’s money. Yair’s conduct, the judge wrote, only proves Shafir’s statement.
The most important change, aside from all the drama, is that other politicians no longer hesitate to highlight Yair’s role as his father’s close adviser. In the past, most Netanyahu rivals believed doing so was self-defeating: the public didn’t appreciate mud being thrown at politicians’ family members. The vicious attacks and fake news that Netanyahu supporters hurled at the families of Naftali Bennett, Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz in recent years – much of it generated and shared by Yair Netanyahu himself on Twitter – has changed that. Now, he is seen as his father’s alter ego, causing not just internal strife, but also diplomatic tension with the White House.