Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have been prepared for the furious response that greeted his comments on Israeli settlers remaining in a future Palestinian state over the weekend. After all, his remarks at the World Economic Forum seemed almost expressly calculated to elicit a reaction from the Palestinians. The leader was likely less ready to face the uproar that emerged from a less-political exchange at Davos: his admission to Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg that his son Yair, 23, is dating a Norwegian (non-Jewish) woman studying in Israel. Netanyahu’s personal disclosure was first reported by the Norwegian daily Dagen and has since been picked up by news outlets around the world (“Who is the mysterious shiksa girlfriend of Israel’s boy king?” was the headline of one Jewish weekly)– and is now igniting a firestorm of criticism from within Israel.
While it is hardly surprising that extremist organizations like Lehava, which aims to “prevent the assimilation of the Holy Land”, would take Netanyahu to task for his son’s relationship, the condemnation has even extended to the P.M.’s allies; Likud MP Moshe Feiglin chided his party leader for the “very unfortunate” relationship in the Jerusalem Post on Sunday. One member of the ultra-Orthodox Shas had an even more colorful admonishment:
It’s a big problem. As the prime minister of Israel and the Jewish people, [Netanyahu] must display national responsibility via the values he presents inside his own household. I bet it pains him. Any Jew who wants to maintain his roots wants to see his son marry a Jewish girl. There is no shortage of beautiful, successful girls without sowing in the fields of others.
Though Netanyahu himself was even once married to a non-Jewish woman (his second wife, Fleur Cates, whom he was married to until 1984), the increased prominence of the ultra-right-wing within Israel’s domestic political sphere has loaded already hot-button cultural issues with greater political charge, making Yair Netanyahu’s unorthodox dating choice a matter of political significance.
And the headache from Davos shows no sign of fading for the Israeli leader as the furor over his son’s love life is coalescing with anger over the settlement issue from his government’s right flank. After his initial provocative suggestion about the future of Israeli settlers in the West Bank, the P.M. backtracked and clarified that he meant settlers would be given the choice to stay. That qualification instantly sparked criticisms from hawks within his government, most notably Economy Minister Naftali Bennet, who accused the leader of an “irrational loss of values.”
The tenuous coherence of Netanyahu’s ruling coalition has been evident for some time now. So it’s ironic that the leader’s attempts to shore up support from his right flank are achieving the exact opposite effect — while simultaneously angering the Palestinians and drawing international condemnation. The media frenzy around his son’s relationship only strengthens his rivals’ attempts to undercut the leader’s Zionist bonafides and though the P.M.’s office is studiously avoiding comment on the dating issue, its utility in exacerbating fractures within his own ruling Likud party means it is not something Netanyahu will be able to ignore for long.